Take Time to Cope with Loss

Written by Kelly Lamb

You have just made the difficult decision to move your parent or spouse to a nursing home or care facility, and are experiencing mixed feelings about this decision. Perhaps your loved one died last week. Well-meaning friends and family members are already making suggestions for your future, and encouraging you to participate in hobbies, community or family events.

Someone may say, “You need to get out more” or “You are still young, you need to consider dating.”

My first inclination would be to tell them to buzz off and go away. However, that is not nice behavior and probably is not good advice. Nonetheless, you need to be assertive and identify your needs. Everyone experiences grief differently and goes through the various stages at their own pace.

My aunt died this week, and my uncle expressed relief that she was no longer suffering. He says he will miss her (something positive) but that does not mean he is ready for a trip around the world. At this early stage of loss, one of my cousins already was discussing activities and plans for his future during the wake. My uncle was good-natured, but said, “Hey, I am retired.”

This is a close, loving family, and people usually make these suggestions because they care about their loved ones and are concerned about their future. They, too, are experiencing grief and loss and feel helpless. They also want to care for you.

What do you say to the well-meaning family member who is trying (but not always in a useful way) to help you cope with your loss? Try to listen, and make noncommittal responses in addition to drawing on your sense of humor. For example: “I’d love to play golf again when the weather warms up, but I’m not going out in January even if it is 50 degrees.” Or: “Yes, I need to exercise more. I’ll try to go for a walk this week.”

If the person is more insistent, or rude, you will need to be assertive about your feelings and needs. It is OK to tell people that you appreciate their ideas, but that you are not ready for much activity yet. If some thoughtless person suggests dating, or something equally offensive or hurtful, you can just say “No.”

You may also tell them that it is a good idea that might be considered at a later date. Finally, you can simply thank the person for the invitation, but take a rain check. Feel free to tell people that you are not up to making any changes in your life for a couple months, or until the time (if ever) feels right to you.

If you are a family member or caregiver trying to support an older adult coping with the loss of a partner, there are ways to help gently without coming in and taking over. These include:

• Try to understand that this is a period in life where your loved one is experiencing change and loss in multiple facets of his or her life. These changes may be causing feelings of grief.

• Help your loved one understand that anger, confusion, guilt, fear and depression are common grief reactions.

• Rather than trying to provide answers and solutions, simply offer your presence and support.

• Be aware of your own personal responses toward grief. They may be quite different from those of your loved one.

• Try to listen without giving suggestions or advice and, if you are asked, try to help your loved one find constructive ways to release feelings.

• As a caregiver you also need to take care of yourself. Be aware of becoming too involved when trying to fix problems and do not expect to receive gratitude for your help. Do not become involved with your loved one’s life at the expense of your own.

• Remember that people often stop thinking logically when they are reacting with emotion.

• Sometimes caregivers discuss solutions to problems because they are uncomfortable discussing death.

• Your loved one has had a life-long commitment to somebody and can’t just change his or her behavior over night.

• Don’t forget to be present during birthdays, anniversaries and other important events that may escalate the grief response.

Time does have a unique way of helping with the healing process. For those who have recently experienced a loss, remember to give yourself time. For those who are helping a loved one cope with a loss, your gift of time will help to make the journey more tolerable.

Kelly Lamb is a family caregiver counselor for Elder Services of Iowa, based in Iowa City. Contact her at 338-0515 or klamb@elderservices.com.