Grief is the price we pay for love.
Queen Elizabeth II
gravemarker, detail (Photo: Elyce Feliz, Creative Commons Attribution License, flickr)
This morning I had an email from my cousin, Donna. Her mother, my mom's oldest sister, died two weeks ago. Today, she told me that my mother's youngest sister, Vickie, would be having surgery on March 7. I already knew that my Aunt Vickie had been diagnosed with colon cancer. In fact, I found out the day after Aunt Kathleen's funeral. Donna and I agreed that it wasn't the best time to let my mom and my Aunt Eve know about the bad news. Now, however, with surgery looming, it didn't seem right to keep both sisters in the dark. I phoned Aunt Eve who wasn't happy to hear the news; however, she had suspected that something was wrong because one of her brothers had told her, when she asked how Vickie was, that "you wouldn't want to know." With due respect to my uncle, my mother and my aunt are women and they would want to know. They wouldn't be happy to know, but they would want to know. Besides, when you reach a certain age - my mother is 77 and my aunt is 81 - there is never a good time to find out about the possible death of a sibling.
Yesterday, my mother fell and, even though she didn't do further damage to her hip, she's still sore and anxious. I told my dad the bad news about Aunt Vickie and we decided that we'll tell Mom about it on Saturday or Sunday. I don't look forward to being the "bearer of bad news", but news of death and illness is a common thread that weaves through the final years of most lives. Younger people may think that older people get "used" to the deaths of their contemporaries. That isn't the case. Each death is another hole torn in the fabric of their lives, another call reminding them of their own mortality. And there often isn't much space between deaths. This complicates a grieving process that is may be overlooked and under-appreciated by younger people. Older people experience grief similarly to younger people. However, due to the stage in life that they occupy, they get to experience a lot more grief, when they may already experiencing fear and anxiety about their own health or the health of a spouse or sibling. (At left: Mom and her three sisters, circa 1950)
How can caregivers, family members or friends help an elderly person with grief?
- Give your the person time to absorb the news
- Give them an opportunity to share memories about the deceased
- Support them in attending whatever death rituals they can, such as funerals, wakes, etc.
- If they cannot attend such events, help them find other ways to feel connected to the family of the deceased during this difficult time.
- Provide comfort in whatever way is accepted by the grieving person
- Encourage them to talk to other family members, either in person or by phone
- Be aware of the risk of illness or depression due to stress and grief
For other suggestions, see Grieving in the elderly.
O Death, sung below by Ralph Stanley, is a traditional song from the Southern mountains.