Love and Loss
Dealing with grief isn't any easier just because you've done it before
Illustration by Stephen Sauer
Let's face it, sometimes math stinks. Like the fact that the older you get, the number of funerals you go to tends to add up. The ranks of your friends and family grow thinner and get subtracted. And the experiences in which you approach loss multiplies.
For seniors especially, says the Rev. Terry Donovan Odell, an ordained interfaith minister, "it may be the death of a loved one, but they are experiencing it from a myriad of losses: the loss of their physical health, whether it's disease or aging; or the loss of the social factor and increased isolation," among other things.
Pamela Sollenberger, a holistic certified grief counselor from Exeter, agrees. "Some lose their livelihood and their whole sense of identity," she says, and for others, if they have a spouse or parent who has a form of dementia, for example, they lose their whole history with the person. "They will say, 'We have this rich full life, but he or she won't remember this.'"
How society treats seniors and their grief doesn't help much either. There's a certain level of disenfranchisement with seniors and grief, says Odell. "We kind of say, 'Well, they've been through so much they can handle this, they're used to this,' whereas if someone who's 35 loses someone it's considered a tragedy. It doesn't make the grieving process any less just because we've experienced it more or are older." Take age out of the equation and loss is still loss.
But there is an upside, if you can call it that, to having more experience with death and grieving. Chuck Johnson, the spiritual and bereavement counselor with the Manchester and Southern New Hampshire Visiting Nurse Association, says that the seniors in his adult bereavement group tend not only to benefit from the group but also provide benefit to the group by contributing, given their vantage point in life. Seniors, he says, seem to provide a mature and calming influence for younger people who don't know how they will move on. He adds that seniors generally have more awareness about the grief process and what it means to them, and they can share that experience with the rest of the group.
"It's a powerful thing for seniors to have such a dynamic influence through their hurt," he says. "You expect to just receive and be supported in this group, but then it is empowering and strengthening in the process itself to give support."
Psychiatrist and author Elisabeth Kübler-Ross was the first to come up with the famous five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. But grief is not a math formula with one correct answer. People talk, walk and breathe differently, so why shouldn't people grieve differently as well? "You think that the stages of grief are all linear but it doesn't really work like that," says Odell. "You can go through all the stages in one day." Even Kübler-Ross herself admitted that her stages are not sequential.
Sollenberger decided on her field after experiencing four deaths of close family members in the span of 11 years about 20 years ago. She lost her mother at 17 from a massive heart attack, her father nine years later and two brothers, one from murder and one from AIDS, following that. "Having the experience of sudden death, tragic death and prolonged death made me realize there were different ways to grieve," she says.
No two deaths are the same, and no two people will deal with the same loss (say, of a parent) the same way. "It doesn't make one person's way of dealing better or worse. It's about honoring a person's grief and how they need to deal with that, whether it's giving them time to talk, or helping them to be less isolated and have a place to grieve or experience that loss."
It's usually around the six-month mark when someone gets in touch with Sollenberger for help. "That's when everyone is gone and they are alone and desperate," she says. Johnson agrees.
"Oftentimes people expect their life to be going differently," he says. "They're still having moments of teariness or sadness six months later and are surprised by that. They think that something must be wrong with them and then become part of a group and they suddenly realize this is pretty normal. And it's a healthy thing for them to see that. It helps connect with people you never would have met if it wasn't for your loss."
It was Shakespeare who wrote, "Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak knits up the o'er wrought heart and bids it break." Translation: unresolved grief will rot your gut. Seniors, like everyone else, need to be able to speak about their grief, to give it a voice outside of themselves in the presence of a compassionate heart, says Odell. That compassionate heart can be a spiritual minister like Odell, a holistic counselor like Sollenberger or in a group of others who are experiencing loss like Johnson's at the VNA. Or it could simply be a friend or relative willing to listen. Acknowledging the person who has passed away reinforces that they were an important part of their survivor's history and will be remembered.
Odell also stresses the importance of seniors planning their own final arrangements as celebrations of their life - and letting their loved ones know what they want. "We're in a culture that doesn't want to talk about these things," she says, "but unless we can be really comfortable with death then our life is really compromised. If you fear death then you are not enjoying life as much." And by telling people what you want - whether it be for people to wear certain attire such as Hawaiian shirts or bright colors, or jeans and flannel shirts, or details like a black (certainly not a baby blue!) hearse, you help ease the grief of friends and family because they know they are celebrating your life and death the way you wanted them to.
This site, sponsored by the National Hospice & Palliative Care Organization, provides simple and clear answers to various questions about grief.
Look up “bereavement” on this site that provides simple as well as somewhat more expanded definitions of grief and mourning, reviews myths about grief and addresses normal responses to loss.
This Hospice Foundation of America site provides a clear and sensitive one-page informative piece about grief as well as a very worthwhile article titled “Evaluating Advice and Information About Grief.”
The site is maintained by David Kessler, who is well-known in the fields of end-of-life care and bereavement and who collaborated with Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. Kessler provides information about grief and bereavement, including common misunderstandings.