Helping seniors cope with grief


LOSING a loved one is one of the hardest things in life to face, especially when it is a spouse. To some, it feels as though the world has stopped and their life has been turned upside down.

Well-known psychologist Elizabeth Kübler Ross said that people typically go through a few stages during the grieving process: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.

They may feel confused and think “I wish I had brought her to the hospital earlier” or “If I had known that she was going …”. These are common initial reactions to the loss of a loved one.

Losing loved ones will have an impact and change your life forever. Many of us will ponder our own mortality as we realise that life is not eternal and death will occur one day.

Initially, people feel confused, bewildered and wish to be alone. They feel they need time to absorb the news and reorganise their thoughts. All these are normal reactions during the grieving period.

Nevertheless, every person reacts to loss differently and the reactions are greatly influenced by their own culture and beliefs. The grief reactions to losing a spouse may also be different in younger and older people.

The younger ones would feel the loss of financial security and support to grow their budding families while older people perceive it as losing a life partner and a companion who truly understands and supports them. Hence, it is not surprising that they often feel insecure and lose confidence after the death of their spouse.

Abnormal grief

For most people, the grief reaction will slowly resolve as they return to work and social functions. However, there are some who experience abnormal or complicated grief. Abnormal grief is when the reactions to grief are too excessive, prolonged or delayed.

In such cases, they find it hard to accept the loss and return to their daily routine. They find that life is meaningless and hopeless.

They are consumed by their grief and feelings of loss to the point that it disrupts their function and work.

On the other hand, there are people who experience delayed grief. They look fine and don’t seem to be reacting to the loss until some days or weeks later. People with this type of grief need more support and counselling to help them get through the bereavement period and resolve their grief.

For example, a 70-year-old man who loses his wife to cancer, finds that he has difficulty sleeping and loses his appetite. He may find himself visiting her grave every day and staying there from morning till sunset. He may be so absorbed in his grief that he doesn’t take care of himself.

He may face confusion and feel guilt for not doing more and for being alive while she is dead.

In such cases, the family and close friends should notice the signs and symptoms of his extreme grieving and reach out to help him.

Coping with the loss

When a loved one dies, the bereaved may wonder how he or she will face the loss and cope with it. The bereaved person may not know how to proceed and what they should do next. In most occasions, the first step taken is to have a funeral or memorial service.

Although, this has been regarded as a religious practice, many people agree that it is part of saying goodbye and helps with the grieving process.

In the initial phase of loss, it is also expected that the bereaved will think a lot about their time together. They would probably wish to talk about the deceased and sometimes would like to express their feelings. Generally, people are more comfortable talking with someone who understands what they are going through, someone who similarly has had a loss and perhaps someone around their age.

Sharing their feelings and memories of their loved one will help the bereaved accept the death and move on with their life.

It is very important for family and friends to regularly check on the bereaved’s condition. Regular visits and phone calls are extremely helpful. Family, friends, neighbours and the community play a crucial role to help seniors through their grief. It is important for us to be good listeners, motivators and supporters. With everyone’s effort, the bereaved person will be able to let go and start a new chapter of their life.

Dr Syahnaz Mohd Hashim is a senior lecturer and family medicine specialist at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia Medical Centre’s Faculty of Medicine.

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