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Losses Later in Life

Seniors have experienced, most likely, more loss in their life than younger generations. But the pain of grief isn’t lessened because of experience or age – you feel and experience grief as deeply as anyone else. As a senior, you may also experience additional losses that are not always recognized but need as much support and affirmation as any other. Here you’ll find some specific information about loss you’re more likely to experience or to be affected by in your later years.


Loss of a grandchild

In many families, the relationships between grandparents and grandchildren are every bit as profound as those between parents and their children. The death of a grandchild is devastating – but can often be overlooked in the desire to comfort that child’s parents. As a grandparent, you may even compartmentalize your own grief or push it aside, more focused on helping your son or daughter deal with their own grief. Ignoring your own grief, while common, isn’t the right path to take – you too must acknowledge and be able to experience your own grief. 

Common reactions to the loss of a grandchild

Grandparents who outlast a grandchild struggle with a death that seems out of order. They may cope with survival guilt and — just like parents — perhaps wonder why they couldn’t have died instead. Sometimes those in poor health or in advanced years feel question this unfair death even more, often asking themselves, “why not me”.

A grandchild is often looked at as immortality, that life and legacy continue through the generations. However when a grandchild dies a branch gets cut from a family’s tree with no future generation to come.

How a death of a grandchild fits into the scheme of life is difficult and often unattainable. Faith is a source of comfort for some grandparents, but others with religious beliefs report feeling betrayed by God. Religious confusion is normal, as is questioning many things that you may have believed to be certain. Losing a grandchild feels like the ultimate violation of the rules of faith and of life.

Seek the support you need to survive and heal, and don’t push your grief aside.


Common responses to a child’s death

 

  • Shock: You may initially feel numb, which is your mind’s way of shielding you from the pain.
  • Denial: Your child can’t be dead. You expect to see him or her walk through the door, or to hear a cry on the baby monitor.
  • Replay: Your mind may center on the “what if’s” as you play out scenarios in which your child could have been saved.
  • Yearning: Many parents report praying obsessively to have even five more minutes with their child so they can tell them how much they love them.
  • Confusion: Your memory may become clouded. You may find yourself driving and not remembering where you’re going. Because your mind is trying to process such a huge shock, normal memory functions can be precluded, putting you in a “haze.” You may at times even question your sanity, though you are not crazy. Your pain is affecting your emotional and psychological systems at an extreme level — a sense of being on overload is common.
  • Guilt: Guilt appears to be one of the most common responses to the death of a child. Parents often mentally replay their actions prior to the death and wonder what they may have done differently.
  • Powerlessness: In addition to feelings of guilt, parents often have a sense of powerlessness that is attributed to feeling that they were not able to protect their child from harm.
  • Anger: Anger and frustration are also feelings reported by most parents and they are common to grief in general. If your child’s death was accidental, these emotions may be intensified. You may also be angry that life seems to go on for others — as if nothing has happened.
  • Loss of hope: You are grieving not only for your child, but also for the loss of your hopes, dreams and expectations for that child. Time will not necessarily provide relief from this aspect of grief. Parents often experience an upsurge of grief at the time they would have expected their child to start school, graduate, get married, etc. Parents are rarely prepared for these triggers and the wave of grief they bring. Be aware of these triggers, and allow yourself to grieve. This is a normal, appropriate and necessary part of the healing process.


Ways to cope with the grief

 

  • Allow yourself to grieve: Often we push the grief away, or tamp it down by distracting ourselves with activities or tasks. Trying to avoid grief only leads to prolonging it — the grief has to be allowed to surface. Unresolved grief can lead to depression, anxiety, substance abuse and health problems.
  • Express your feelings in a tangible way: This can be done in many ways, depending on your creativity or usual means of expression. You can write about your loss in a journal, or send a private note to the person you’ve lost. You can make a scrapbook, photo album or create an online memorial celebrating that person’s life. You can also get involved in an organization or philanthropy that was meaningful to them, or make a donation in their name.
  • Be physically healthy: Your mind and body are connected, and physical health helps with the emotional healing process. It’s natural to feel lethargic or low energy, but if you’re able to take a walk or a run, it will promote the process. Combat your fatigue with an appropriate amount of sleep, and choose foods that provide you not just with comfort but energy.
  • Don’t judge yourself, or let others judge you: You are allowed to grieve for as long and as deeply as you need to. No one — including yourself — can tell you when to “move on” or “get over it.” It’s okay to be angry, to cry, not cry, or even laugh — you need to allow for moments of joy in your grief, and feel no guilt for having a moment without pain. We recommend that you read the Mourner’s Bill of Rights, to reassure yourself of your “right” to grieve.


Loss of a companion animal

When a person you love dies, it’s natural to grieve, express your grief and expect friends and family to provide understanding and comfort.Unfortunately, when a beloved pet dies, many people are less understanding of the deep affect it has on your life. Some may think or say, “it’s just a pet” and think that your pain may pass in a matter of days or with the “replacement” by another animal. Nothing could be further from the truth. 

Your pet was a member of your family

You undoubtedly loved your pet and probably considered him or her a member of your family. Many people, especially those for whom the pet is a constant companion, confide in their animals, talk to them throughout the day, give and receive deep affection, and come to count on their presence as a critical part of the day. So when your beloved pet dies, it’s not unusual to feel overwhelmed by the intensity of your sorrow.

Animals provide companionship, acceptance, emotional support, and unconditional love during the time they share with you. If you understand and accept this bond between humans and animals, you need to take the first step toward coping with pet loss: knowing that it is okay to grieve when your pet dies. Don’t tell yourself or let anyone tell you otherwise – you have a right to grieve.

What to expect while grieving

Coping with the loss of a pet can be particularly hard for seniors. Those who live alone may feel a loss of purpose and an immense emptiness – if you live alone, your pet may have alleviated any sense of loneliness or isolation. He or she may have encouraged you to get out for a walk or to establish a meaningful daily routine, taking care of their needs. And most of all, your pet was a source of unconditional love and constant companionship.

Because your companion meant so much to you, your pet’s death may also trigger painful memories of other losses and remind you of your own mortality. For some, the decision to get another pet is complicated by the possibility that the pet may outlive the caregiver, and hinges on the person’s physical and financial ability to care for a new pet. That can lead to feelings of increased isolation and a focus on what can’t happen instead of the good the future may hold.

How to cope with your grief

For all the reasons noted above, it’s critical that you take immediate steps to cope with your loss and regain a sense of purpose. Make every effort to interact with friends and family, to assuage the loneliness. Consider calling a pet loss support hotline or even volunteering at a local humane society. That contact with needy animals may help you as you grieve for your own loss, knowing that you’re providing them with much needed love and physical contact. There are also organizations that need foster families for pets that are considered less adoptable because they too are seniors – you may be able to provide loving companionship to that animal as a way of honoring the memory of your own companion.

Other things to keep in mind

Give yourself permission to grieve: Your loss is as deserving of sorrow and grief as any other. You may have a bond with your animal as you have had with humans. Allow yourself to grieve, and don’t judge yourself – your grief is appropriate and should be recognized.

Give yourself time to grieve: There is no timeline on grief. Only you know when you can move through a day with less sadness, and no one can tell you that it’s “time to move on.”

Accept and express your feelings: Don’t be embarrassed by your feelings, and don’t hide them. Tamping down those feelings will only lead to greater grief later or even physical ailments often associated with depression. It can help to associate with others who have lost a pet or who recognize the deep value and relationships that come from companion animals. Consider contacting the local SPCA/ASPCA to find out if there are local support groups, or to find volunteering opportunities.


Regardless of the type of loss, your grief will be individual and unique. How and for how long you process grief will be different than for anyone else, and you need to allow yourself to grieve in your own way.

Other topics that may be helpful to you during your time of grief include the Mourner’s Bill of Rights, as well as the related topics to the left. The Loss of a Spouse section also includes information that may be helpful to you.

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