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A Comforting Presence in a Dark Time: Helping Seniors Cope with the Loss of a Spouse

Profoundly painful. Disorienting. Emotionally devastating. Those are just some of the ways elderly people describe what it’s like to lose a spouse. Helping a senior cope with such a loss can be extraordinarily difficult. For those who have never had the experience, it’s impossible to appreciate how different losing a spouse is from losing a parent, a sibling or close friend. The bereaved person may experience confusion, indecision, or a total lack of motivation. Suddenly bereft of a helpmate and lifetime partner, they need help but may not know how to ask for it. So what can you do?

Listen unconditionally
One of the greatest kindnesses you can perform is to listen. Listen unconditionally and with empathy. Sometimes, encouraging a grieving individual just to talk about their spouse and letting them know you’re there to listen can be therapeutic. Simply allowing a loved one to share thoughts or vent pent-up emotions can be a valuable service. But it does require patience and a sense of restraint. Saying “I know how you feel” can come across as a shallow, patronizing statement if you truly don’t know.
Part of being a good, patient listener is allowing a bereaved senior to grieve freely. They may exhibit depression, remorse, resignation, and a host of other feelings (perhaps even contradictory ones) that may be overwhelming, even startling. Try to remember that this is an important part of the healing process, a sharing of feelings that can make the difference between a debilitating emotional decline and a glimmer of light that brings a little relief and a sense of hope.

Day-to-day coping
Coping with grief often makes it difficult for seniors to perform day-to-day tasks such as paying bills or taking medication. Children can be particularly helpful by supporting a parent in these mundane-yet-important tasks, freeing them to deal with their grief without the extra burden of personal responsibility. Seniors in mourning often find it difficult to stay organized. You can help by offering to help plan a schedule or drive them to appointments.

Maintaining a physical presence can be important because bereavement may produce powerful emotional responses at unpredictable times. Something may trigger a memory that produces a sudden crying spell or proves temporarily incapacitating. Having a loved one nearby who can do the driving, clean the house or wash dishes is not only emotionally supportive but can help prevent injury at a time when your parent or relative may be distracted and inattentive. 

Time to downsize?
For seniors who suddenly find themselves alone, taking care of a house as well as themselves can be daunting. There are belongings to go through, legal matters to attend to, and more. The stress of keeping things clean and organized may become too much. If this is the case, it might be time to consider downsizing to a smaller home, where your parent would have far less they are responsible for. To keep the process manageable, Angie’s List suggests creating (and sticking to) a moving schedule, decluttering and getting rid of items no longer needed, and starting small by packing closets first.

For certain seniors, an assisted living facility may be a better option. Here, your parent would receive physical assistance, emotional support, and social stimulation every day. It can be a difficult matter to bring up, especially for someone who’s used to being independent, but the benefits of assisted living can truly make a difference for an elderly person dealing with loneliness and depression for the first time. Many facilities offer temporary stays, during which individuals can get a feel for whether assisted living is for them.

Losing a spouse and lifetime companion is an inevitability for which no one is ever really prepared. Those who suffer such a loss may have needs they themselves don’t understand. Relatives and friends can provide a comforting presence just by being near, lending a loving ear or offering a helping hand. 

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