At 81, Nellie is a robust Ukrainian woman who still makes delicious strawberry jam, walks her small dog twice daily and never misses a sporting event if one of her grandkids is playing. But lately she’s been lacking her usual vibrancy… obviously experiencing grief over the recent loss of her sister.
“At my age, death is not far up the road. If it’s not you getting there first, it’s your mate, your sister, or your long-time friend,” she told her daughter, as they drove home from the second funeral in as many weeks.
Illness, death and attendance at funerals are inevitable events in life for everyone, but for older people, these experiences are often front and centre, overshadowing the everyday pleasures they might otherwise enjoy. For some, sadness is a quiet personal journey; perhaps they come from an era or a family culture that dictates private suffering. Others want to talk about their sadness – they find solace in sharing their grief. There is no best or proper way to process loss, what matters most is that people be given the liberty to experience grief as they choose.
If you have a loved one who is at that place in life where they find themselves bidding farewell to many friends and loved ones, you may find yourself at a loss for ways to comfort or support them. Here are some suggestions from a variety of grief experts:
- Empathize: Put yourself in their shoes without factoring in age at all. How would you feel if you lost your mate or best friend or both in one year?
- Listen: Offer sufficient opportunities for sharing. If your loved one is inclined to tell stories, share their thoughts or express grief, listening is the thing you can do for them.
- Be there: Loss can heighten a person’s anxiety over their own looming end of life, or it can make them feel lonely. Sometimes your simple presence is all it takes to alleviate their distress.
- Don’t say this: Resist the urge to repeat common phrases like, “Oh well, at least she had a good long life.” Or, “Finally – an end to his suffering.” Or, “At her age, death was a blessing.” While all of these statements may be true, they may not make the loss feel any less painful.
- Say this: If you are looking for ways to invite meaningful conversation, try words like this: “Ah, that’s so sad, I bet you’ll miss him, are you doing okay?” or “Tell me about her. What made her special? How long were you friends?” Or, “Is there anything I can I do to make this easier for you? Perhaps you would you like to do something special to mark her passing.”
Being healthy and well as you age is a blessing, but it is no fun watching the people you love languish and pass on. If this is happening to someone you know offer the gifts of compassion, time and a gentle listening heart.