The Shadow of Grief

“ There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens:

a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot, a time to kill and a time to heal,

a time to tear down and a time to build, a time to weep and a time to laugh,

a time to mourn and a time to dance, a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,

a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing, a time to search and a time to give up,

a time to keep and a time to throw away, a time to tear and a time to mend ” ~ Ecclesiastes

For thousands of years every culture, nation, and individual has had to wrestle with the inevitability of grief. As the years pass all of us must shoulder more and more loss until it appears that loss is all we know.

How? How do we cope with the inevitability of loss or provide care to those who are? What methods are successful in managing the consequences of loss?

To begin with let's define grief ...

Grief is a natural response to loss. It is the emotional suffering one feels when something or someone the individual loves is taken away. Grief is also a reaction to any loss. The grief associated with death is familiar to most people, but individuals grieve in connection with a variety of losses throughout their lives, such as retirement, unemployment, ill health of self or a loved one, moving, empty nesting or the end of a relationship. The ties that bind us to our lives are gradually severed by events beyond our control and our connections ... the things that had meaning ... are lost, leaving us to wither in loneliness.

Grief is a journey, yet while similar for all of us each experience is as individual as a snowflake. For some, grief is unending and unyielding in its pain. For others, it is brief (as in the case of prolonged illness or separation). In any case, it’s real and unique to the individual.

Many seniors find people urging them to rush through their grief, dismissing the loss because of a "full, rich life". These people, while well-meaning, take away the elder's permission to grieve. Often they are urged to give away or pack up belongings, or look at selling the home and moving away. What most don't realize is that this is a time to suspend making major life decisions and come to terms with the changes in their life circumstances. A consistent element of grief is the sense that "time stands still". Others move on when everyday is the same for weeks or months.

Loss affects us deeply. As a result it is not unusual to see seniors withdraw from friends or activities they had before the loss. While loved ones may be concerned this is not always evidence of depression. We begin to ask questions about what it all means ... many who have been strong of faith turn from God for a time, while others find themselves seeking answers and comfort in faith.

As the years pass and we begin to realize our own mortality, the questions of faith and spiritually take on greater meaning and urgency in many (though not all) seniors. In my own work with seniors dealing with grief and loss, I have seen frustration and concern that at the time they most have questions there are very few people to help them find answers. Too many people, and not enough ministers or chaplains available to visit seniors who are unable to travel. Also service organizations providing care or counseling are ill suited and often constrained from addressing these very issues. There is a pervasive institutional culture that deliberately stands at arm's length from spirituality ... in respect of freedom of religion in our country? That is a question for another day, however the results remain the same.

What can we do?

Be honest. One of the kindest things we can say to a person in grief is "I can't begin to imagine your pain, and I'm not sure how to help. But I want to". Grief does not need to be fully understood to be shared and in fact many seniors dealing with grief are often offended by others saying that they understand. Also remain aware that while you have moved on they probably haven't. I urge family and friends to put reminders in their calendars for all the anniversaries, holidays; and most importantly, the monthly anniversary of the passing. A simple call or note will have enormous value to the senior.

Encourage memorabilia. Help the senior create a biography of photos, letters and items of sentimental value. I have found the creation of a "memory box" which contains these items to be a powerful source of comfort.

Remind their pastor to visit. If they've attended church they may not be able to attend for a time, however that doesn't mean they would not appreciate the comfort of a visit.

Don't forget the children. People grieve at different speeds, and unresolved conflicts can arise and set survivors at odds. Be there for the children and mediate for the senior as unfinished business becomes a monkey on their back.