The death of a loved one is one of the worst things anyone can experience in life. When it’s a spouse a senior lived with for years and years, it’s even harder to deal with. So much of their life was intertwined with the partner that a sudden removal is traumatic.
If your senior friend lost their spouse, this means you might not know what to do or say. You want to be a good friend and help, but what can you do? You expect your friend to be sad, but when is such mourning unhealthy for a senior? That varies from person to person, but you can help by knowing the signs of both healthy and unhealthy grief. Then you can get into specific ways to help.
What Healthy Mourning Looks Like
Bereavement is a normal process after anyone loses their spouse. This is a person they built a life around and most likely loved deeply. So when they die, it’s normal to grieve.
But what kind of grieving is nothing to worry about? It’s normal (and even healthy) to go through the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally acceptance. If the senior is depressed or angry, both are expected. Note that these stages can come in any order. Many follow through in sequence, but it’s okay if your friend skips bargaining or returns to anger during this process.
Complicated Grief Is A Bad Thing
If those five stages are healthy for a senior, when can things become unhealthy? There’s a term for this: complicated grief. According to Columbia University’s School of Social Work, this is when grief and mourning take hold of your friend’s mind and doesn’t stop. Signs of complicated grief include:
- Feeling emotionally numb
- Losing joy in life
- Withdrawing from social activities and friends
- Intense pain and sorrow over the loss
What causes complicated grief? It can be different for each person, but one typical cause is trying to avoid any reminders of the death. Like anyone, a senior needs to comes to terms with the loss, not pretend it never happened.
One unfortunate consequence of complicated grief can be substance abuse. To escape the pain, some seniors turn to drugs (prescription or illegal) and become addicted. This is true for alcohol as well. If you think your senior friend is beginning to abuse drugs or alcohol, talk to a professional counselor for how to help.
What You Can Do To Help
Knowing the signs of healthy and unhealthy grieving is important, but what actions can you take to help your friend recover? Often, talking and listen is vital to a senior who lost their spouse. Psychology Today lists a few things people who have gone through this process wish friends had said to them.
- “Do you want to talk?” This works because you’re letting your friend decide when they’re ready to speak about the loss.
- “Can I do X for you?” Specific offers (cook dinner, clean the house, make calls) are actually helpful and useful.
- “Do you want me to stay here awhile?” Seniors often need company, but by asking instead of just showing up, you’re respecting their needs and privacy.
One thing you should not do is offer empty platitudes like, “They’re in a better place” or, “This is part of God’s plan.” Because these statements don’t offer anything useful, they can come across as belittling or demeaning to a senior. Instead, be a good listener and focus on doing practical things like cleaning or running errands for your friend.
It’s Hard, But You Can Be There For Your Friend
Helping a senior get through the grieving process is not always going to be easy. You’ll likely get stressed out, and you can be grieving for that person as well. But by knowing how to tell healthy grieving from something unhealthy, and by knowing what to say and do in these cases, you can be the person your senior friend really needs right now.
Martin Oaks would like to thank one of our readers, Ms. Jackie Waters, for submitting this article and allowing us to share it. Ms. Waters lives in Oregon and has an interesting website Hyper-Tidy.com.