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Grieving Later in Life

How Elderly People Experience Loss Differently

Box of tissues for someone dealing with grief.

It is an unfortunate fact that the longer a person lives, the more loss they will experience, but grieving the loss of a loved one never gets any easier. In fact, research shows that it can be significantly more difficult for the elderly. Here, we explore the many ways that grief looks different in advanced age and how loved ones can offer support.

Older Adults Are More Likely to Experience Complicated Grief

Grief is a completely normal response to the loss of a loved one, but when the symptoms of grief do not subside, a person may be experiencing ‘complicated grief,’ or prolonged grief disorder. Rather than fading with time, complicated grief worsens to the point that it interferes with a person’s ability to heal and get back to their life. “Grief is no respecter of persons; it affects each and every person uniquely,” says Kevin Becker, a chaplain with Hearth Hospice and Morning Pointe Senior Living. “As a general rule, the longer a person has loved the deceased, the greater the impact is felt.”

Risk factors for complicated grief include losing a child, dealing with multiple losses, having a close or dependent relationship with the deceased, social isolation, decreased access to support systems, and a past history of depression or anxiety – all of which become more likely with increased age.

Woman in bed overwhelmed with grief.

The Physical Effects of Grief Can Be More Severe for Older Adults

Grief is a major source of stress, which can have a significant impact on our physical health. For example, cortisol – the stress hormone – is known to impair the body’s immune system, increasing the risk of infection and decreasing the body’s ability to heal. A young, healthy person’s immune system can adapt to fluctuations like this, but as our immune systems grow weaker and less resilient with age, older adults are increasingly vulnerable to serious infections or the inability to overcome an infection.

Stress cardiomyopathy, commonly known as broken heart syndrome, is another physical symptom brought on by intense grief that is more prevalent in adults over 50. Broken heart syndrome is thought to occur when an influx of stress hormones damages the heart, and may result in a cardiac event similar to a heart attack. The effects of such an event become increasingly risky with age.

How to Help

While it’s important to be aware of the risk factors commonly associated with complicated grief, there is no way to know for sure how a loss will affect someone. Luckily, there are several things caretakers and loved ones can do to help an elderly person through their grief.

Grief Counseling Grief counselors can provide coping strategies and may be better equipped to identify signs of complicated grief. Since many older adults do not live independently, it can be hard for them to access support groups and other counseling services on their own, but early intervention – soon after a loss – can help mitigate the effects of complicated grief.

Talking Openly About the Loss Offering a place for people to express their grief is one of the best ways to help, according to Becker. “I have found that creating environments of authentic, open communication where a grieving person is free to share their true feelings is extremely helpful. In a culture that is familiar with ‘I’m fine,’ a pause, a look in the eye, and a ‘you can trust me with your heart’ is extremely beneficial,” he says.

Challenge Negative Thoughts Surrounding the Loss Guilt is a common facet of grief for many adults. According to Becker, it helps to challenge these feelings of guilt by giving the bereaved some grace. “Unconditional love, forgiving oneself, and accepting that humans can’t fix everything will ease the self-torment that can accompany grief,” he says. “Though challenging, replacing guilt with grace has brought a huge sense of relief to many I walked the grief journey with.”

Person walking wiht a raincloud over their head.

Symptoms of Prolonged Grief Disorder:

  • Intense sorrow and hyperfixation on the deceased
  • Persistent longing for the deceased
  • Inability to move on with life
  • Avoiding reminders of the loss
  • Apathy or a sense of meaninglessness
  • Intense loneliness
  • Struggles with identity after the loss

Youthfulness can soften a lot of life’s heavy blows, and going through a hard time in your 20s is much different than going through a hard time in your 80s. If you or a loved one are struggling with immense grief, consider speaking with a counselor or your doctor about the different therapies that are available to help.

Kevin Becker, Chaplain

Kevin Becker, Chaplain

Hearth Hospice and Morning Pointe Senior Living

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