Aging brings tremendous grief. Just witnessing the accumulation of years take hold of our bodies can be disheartening. My 90 year-old mother-in-law lamented not long ago, “I’ve never been this wrinkled before!” She wanted to go to the drug store and buy antiwrinkle cream. It took me an hour to convince her that antiwrinkle cream was something to be applied when we are young to protect from UV rays, not an antidote for wrinkles already accumulated over time. Her complaint may seem silly, but it is a REAL loss none-the-less, and it hurts to see one’s youth fade.
All things change--that is the one constant in life. Change is especially difficult for most aging adults. They long for neighbors that they once knew, but their neighborhoods have grown up and people have moved on. Many of their friends and acquaintances are dead, ill, disabled, or relocated. There are few people who come and visit. There may be no one to drive an elder to the church or Shabbat services they once enjoyed. These days, many folks use text messaging and emails to make contact so phone calls and real hand-written letters are few and far between.
Numerous older adults are without computers. Many don’t want them. What the younger generation view as the gifts of emailing, gaming and chat rooms are lost to them. Even reading is out of the question for elders with cataracts or failing eye sight. . Sitting alone in front of a television screen, the weather too inclement to go outside, our elderly friends, neighbors and loved ones are mired in loneliness, depression and grief. What can we do to help?
You may find the following tips from an online article I read as helpful when dealing with elder adults this holiday season. I’ve embellished them somewhat.
1. Listen even when their talk is negative. They may be processing their grief. Put yourself in their place and empathize. Often elder adults repeat themselves—be patient. Listen as if it is the first time you’ve heard the story.
2. Remind them how important and loved they are and include them in your celebrations without making them feel like you are just doing your duty.
3. Help them write holiday cards and respond to the ones they receive. Often holiday cards contain a litany of people who have died during the year, so sit with the person as they open their mail. Be present to listen and comfort them when they learn of another death.
4. Remind them that you are trying to celebrate in a way that makes people count this holiday season and not the accumulation of transient things. Affirm for them that they are an important part of this emphasis.
5. If your parent, relative or friend is in an assisted living facility, check with the local daycares, kindergartens or grade schools to see if they can bring children to come and visit the elderly. They can sing, bring handmade cards and gifts, sit on laps and share stories with one another.
6. Ask if you can bring your pet to visit your special elder and the rest of the residents.
7. If your parent, relative or friend is in a facility take them to children’s programs if you can. Include them in your grandchildren’s/children’s activities, or go as a group to see the holiday lights.
8. Check with churches and synagogues that have outreach programs and ask them to visit your elderly friend/relative. Many have trained lay ministers who know how to listen.
9. Decorate their home or room festively. Display their favorite Christmas ornaments or a menorah for Chanukah. If candles aren’t allowed, there are electric menorahs one can purchase. Or bring them to your home to help decorate your house. Include them in the activities.
10. Bring holiday cookies and other traditional treats to share with your loved one and/or the group they are living with.
11. Put together a holiday party. You can often do this in a conference room at a nursing or retirement facility. Invite special friends and staff to join in the celebration.
12. Decorate their dinner table—make it festive, fun and colorful.
13. Spend quality time with them. This is the most important suggestion of all.
Make sure you aren’t rushed, that you have time. Then, commit yourself to being fully present. This can go a long way to make a person feel valued and loved, thus alleviating the loneliness of the holiday seasons.Don’t do more than is comfortable for you. Share the entertainment of your special elder with your friends and family. Divvy up the activities and make sure whoever is entertaining the person is fully committed to being there. Non-verbal communication is easily read…body language doesn’t lie. People see through you when you aren’t sincere. Be sincere. Be committed. Be present and give the gift of time. Time is all we really have to share. Happy Holidays
Elderly Loneliness and the Holidays.
You've lost a loved one and the holidays are approaching. How are you going to get through them? First and foremost, you must acknowledge that holidays will never be the same again, never, because your loved one isn't there to share them with you. Still, you can enjoy yourself without diminishing the memory or diluting the love you have for the deceased.
I tell people to do what they are comfortable with, something that won't over-tax them or intensify their pain. How about changing traditions? If you've always hosted the holidays, perhaps you can ask another relative or friend to take over the task, or begin switching from house to house each year. Maybe, celebrating in a different town will ease the pain. Pack up your belongings and spend the holiday season in Hawaii, Bend, or with your sister in Boise.
This time of year you need support more than ever. Holidays can magnify our losses and spending them alone can make you even sadder than before. So, make sure you are around understanding and compassionate people. You can't avoid the feelings of grief, so lean into them, let them be.
It is through experiencing the pain that we finally emerge on the other side.
The most important thing to remember during the holidays is to be gentle with yourself. You've experienced a trauma, a deep psychic wound that will take time to heal. Baby yourself. Do whatever makes you feel better and gives you some reprieve from the onslaught of pain. You are in charge. You get to decide what feels right for you. No one else can possibly know how you feel even if they've had similar losses. Grief is individual and unique. No one is going to take better care of you than you. You are coping with one of life's biggest challenges--the death of someone you loved. You owe it to yourself to focus on yourself right now. It isn't selfish, it is part of your emotional survival.
I suggest you incorporate your lost loved one into the events. Here are some ideas.
- Make a memory book or box. Decorate it and fill it with photos and memorabilia of your loved one. Then share it with visitors during the holidays.
- Set a place at the table for your loved one and place a candle on the plate in memory of them.
- Create an altar with flowers, photos and possessions of your loved one that you keep out during the holiday season. Keep a blank notebook nearby for people to contribute their memories or prayers for the deceased.
- Volunteer at a soup kitchen, food bank or church in honor of your loved one.
- Donate funds to a special charity in their name.
- Dedicate a religious service to your loved one.
- Attend a grief support group through your hospital system or hospice. Or make an appointment with a grief counselor to ease the burden during this time.
- Take a walk, get a massage, enjoy a bubble bath with a glass of wine, read a frivolous novel.
How many of us can say the same? I know an elderly woman close to Betty's age who has no hobbies other than picking up pinecones in her front yard. My God, that's seasonal work! This woman doesn't read; watch movies, scrapbook, play crossword or jigsaw puzzles. She has no creative outlet. Doesn't like to cook, sew, write, paint or engage in any crafts. She sits in a chair in front of her television screen or marches around the outside of her house to keep her legs working. She has one volunteer activity a month and plans one, one-week trip with a travel group a year. This lady is vanishing before my eyes. In hospice work, we call it failure to thrive--and it is lethal.
It doesn't happen in our 80s or 90s; failure to thrive begins whenever we decide we are no longer "relevant" in the world. It is up to each of us to find meaning and purpose in our lives. It takes effort. I speak from experience having lost a 3 day a week, secure, well-paid position last January. I have a private practice which I wasn't paying much attention to, but suddenly that was all I had! I expected to work for four more years, instead a company takeover marched me out the door--supervised, mind you so that I didn't steal the store--with just 6 months’ severance. I spent months depressed, facing feelings of hopelessness and even worthlessness. Me, the upbeat, always positive person, the cheerleader for change and transformation--huddled under my bedcovers not wanting to come out.
Finally, I had to take a long hard look at what I did have. For the most part, I have my health, three remarkable children, a loving husband, a great dog, a lovely home, numerous friends, a strong faith in the Divine (though at the time it was wavering). I also had an established grief counseling practice that I could now spend time cultivating, expanding and engaging in the work I've always wanted to do. So, what was keeping the coverlet tucked under my chin for so long? Why the inertia? The answer is the same for all of us CHANGE! No one likes to face change because change means we have to DO something. The familiar is always more comfortable than facing the unknown. My God, there are risks involved! Anything but taking a risk!
What I've learned through the people I serve, my clients, those folks who are so broken they wonder if they will ever be whole again--Change is the only thing we can ever count on. Everything changes. Moment to moment change happens whether it's huge or minuscule. It always causes us discomfort. Yet, as I've watch my grieving clients climb out of their abyss, I only witness growth, deepening awareness of life, expansion of their hearts, minds and souls. Grievers face the most horrifying changes of anyone--the loss of a loved one. They have nothing else to lose and it changes their worldview, their perspective. They no longer want to waste time doing things that don't matter, or being with people they can barely tolerate. No, life takes on a new sense of purpose and meaning. They all seem to want to glean the best life has to offer right here, right now. No more messing around.
This is where I too found my salvation. I needed to create meaning and purpose in life by engagement. We all need to be engaged, to step out, to take a risk. The worst that can happen is someone might say "No," so what? Our next move is always to pick up our marbles and move on to someone or something that wants to play with us, wants to say yes. It's all about growing up, maturing, no matter how old we are. It was time for me, and it can be time for you, to stop playing the victim and become instead the victor! Thank you God!
Grief is a natural state after a loved one dies. In suicide, it is as if our loved one has been ripped away from us without warning, reason or cause. We are never, and can never prepare for such a death. The closer our relationship to the deceased the more painful our grief. Everyone grieves on their own schedule. For some it may take a year, for others two or three. No one else can predict the length of this journey for us. It is always relative.
Special occasions like the anniversary of the death, holidays, birthdays are times survivors need to plan for. Doings something nurturing for oneself is important--take the day off, get a message, go to a museum or fishing. Do something to honor the person while at the same time taking care of yourself. It is a good idea to make a change in your traditions around Christmas, Hannaka,vacation times, etc. They will never be the same anyway without your loved one in them and trying to do the same sorts of things as before the death will make one's pain all the deeper.
People who have lost loved ones to suicide suffer in different ways than to other causes. There may be a sense of shame involved as if something could have been done to prevent the suicide, that it should have been foreseen. However, little can be done to prevent such an act once it has been decided upon. The suicidal person is a master of deception and secrets. Often right before the event everyone around them will feel as if everything has made a turn for the better. It appears this way because the suicidal person has made the decision to die and this gives them peace of mind--misread as healthy, behavior. We cannot watch people 24/7. We are powerless against a determined, troubled soul who can only think of one solution to their misery-- death. Still, survivors always blame themselves in the beginning. Much of the work of recovery is seeing through this falsehood.
Hope and recovery is available with the support of friends, family and often a grief counselor. Of primary importance is education in understanding the suicidal mind. Once survivors recognize their powerlessness against such devastating emotions as experienced by the suicidal person, they can begin to heal. In most cases a new sense of purpose and meaning emerges in the life of survivors. Their life and careers awaken to dramatic alteration.
Some people go back to school and begin entirely different careers. Some become advocates, while others alter their worldview and live lives richer in content and enjoyment recognizing the fragility of existence. Taking life a day at a time and reveling in the preciousness of the time we still have with family and friends is a true gift our departed loved often leaves us.
REFERENCES: No Time to Say Goodbye, Carla Fine
Dying to be Free, Beverly Cobain & Jean Larch