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. Moreover, as a senior, you may experience additional losses that are not consistently recognized but need as much support and affirmation as any other. Here you’ll find specific information about the loss you’re more likely to experience or be affected by in your later years.
Loss of a grandchild
In many families, the relationships between grandparents and grandchildren are 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 grief or push it aside, more focused on helping your son or daughter deal with their grief. However, ignoring your suffering, while common, isn’t the right path to take – you, too, must acknowledge and be able to experience your grief.
Common reactions to the loss of a grandchild
Grandparents who outlive a grandchild usually struggle because their death seems out of order. They may cope with survivor’s guilt and — like parents — perhaps wonder why they couldn’t have died instead. Sometimes those in poor health or advanced years question this unfair death, asking themselves, “why not me.”
A grandchild is often considered immortality, and 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.
How a grandchild’s death fits into life’s scheme is difficult and often unattainable. Faith is a source of comfort for some grandparents, but others with religious beliefs report feeling betrayed by God. Spiritual confusion is typical, as is questioning many things you may have believed certain. Losing a grandchild is the ultimate violation of the rules of faith and life.
Seek the support you need to survive and heal, and don’t push your grief aside.
Common responses to a grandchild’s death
Shock: You may initially feel numb, which is your mind’s way of shielding you from the pain.
Denial: Your grandchild can’t be dead.
Replay: Your mind may center on the “what if’s” as you play out scenarios in which your grandchild could have been saved.
Yearning: Many grandparents pray obsessively to have even another moment with 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 disrupted, putting you in a “haze.” You may sometimes 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 grandchild, especially if they felt their parenting skills were different than those of the parents.
Powerlessness: In addition to feelings of guilt, grandparents often have a sense of powerlessness, feeling unable to protect their grandchild from harm.
Anger: Anger and frustration are also feelings reported by most grandparents, and they are common to grief in general. Your emotions might intensify if your grandchild’s death was accidental. You may also be angry that life seems to go on for others — as if nothing has happened.
Loss of hope: You are grieving for your grandchild and your child and the loss of hopes, dreams, and expectations for your child’s family and that grandchild. Time will not necessarily provide relief from this aspect of grief. Grandparents often experience an upsurge of grief when they would have expected their grandchild to start school, graduate, get married, etc. Like parents, grandparents 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. Avoiding the suffering only prolongs it — the grief has to be allowed to surface. Unresolved grief can lead to depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and health problems.
Tangibly express your feelings: 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 donate in their name.
Be physically healthy: Your mind and body are connected, and physical health helps with emotional healing. It’s natural to feel sluggish 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 can 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, 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 reading Mourner’s Bill of Rights to reassure yourself of your “right” to grieve.
When a person you love dies, it’s natural to grieve, express your grief and expect friends and family to provide understanding and comfort. But, unfortunately, when a beloved pet dies, many people are less understanding of the profound effect on your life. Some may think or say, “it’s just a pet,” and believe that your pain may pass in a matter of days or with the “replacement” by another animal. Unfortunately, nothing could be further from the truth.
You undoubtedly loved your pet and probably considered them a family member. So 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 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 a pet’s death
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. They may have encouraged you to go for a walk or 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 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 after a pet dies
For all the reasons noted above, you must take immediate steps to cope with your loss and regain a sense of purpose. First, make every effort to interact with friends and family to assuage the loneliness. Consider calling a pet loss support hotline or volunteering at a local humane society. That contact with needy animals may help you as you grieve for your loss, knowing that you’re providing them with much-needed love and physical contact. Some organizations need foster families for pets that may be 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 companion.
Other things to keep in mind
Permit yourself to grieve: Your loss deserves sorrow and grief as any other. You may bond with your animal as you have 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 for 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.”