Successful Aging: When you’ve lost a loved one, what do you do next?
Q. Your Successful Aging column on January 9, 2022, made reference to a column you wrote years ago when your husband passed away. My husband of 52 years died on November 11, 2021; he was my best friend and soulmate. I would love to read your thoughts and words in that column. Can you help me? Thank you in advance. S.D.
I am so sorry to learn of your loss. And thank you for referring to that long-ago column on grief and bereavement. I decided to write a new one that integrates some of the past information with a few new perspectives.
“The death of a spouse at any age or stage in life is one of the most emotionally difficult and taxing experiences of anyone’s lifetime,” writes David A. Crenshaw, author of “Bereavement: Counseling the Grieving Throughout the Life Cycle” (Crossroads Publishing Co. 1996).
That loss creates feelings of grief that can come and go and reappear years later. Here is a personal example. The last time I danced with my husband was 20 years ago at my daughter’s wedding. The song he requested to be played and which we danced to was “What a Wonderful World” by Louis Armstrong. To this day, I get teary-eyed whenever I hear that song, and that’s 20 years later.
Psychiatrists, psychologists and specialists on death and dying (thanatologists) have taught us a lot about the end of life. Here are two different approaches to grief and mourning. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, Swiss-American psychiatrist and author of the ground-breaking book “On Death and Dying” (Touchstone, 1997), suggested we go through five distinct stages of grief after the loss of a loved one.
The first phase is denial which can minimize the pain by feeling this cannot be true. Next is anger or resentment, which may be one of the first emotions released. One might ask, “Why has this happened to me?” Next is bargaining, when one might be making requests to a higher power. This is followed by depression, a time when reality becomes clear and unavoidable. The final phase is acceptance when one no longer resists that reality. Note: I’m not sure everyone experiences each of these steps as they move to acceptance.
Another approach is suggested by psychologist and author Therese A. Rando. She calls it the six R’s of Mourning. Again, a sequence of intentions and emotions is suggested.
Recognize the loss: This is coming to terms with the loss and its reality.
React to the separation: Often a painful experience, it is accepting the loss of the relationship as it was and the diminished hopes for the future.
Recollect and re-experience: This can be ongoing through memories and incorporating them into the present.
Relinquish old attachments: Taking place over a period of time, it’s letting go of things and getting comfortable with the idea that one will be okay in the new world.
Readjust to this new world: It’s moving forward without forgetting the past while establishing a new identity.
Reinvent emotional energy: The goal is to create a new space in one’s life assimilating the past into the present and putting energy into new goals and relationships.
These approaches may sound methodical and without compassion or sympathy. Yet both give us a framework for our emotions, what to expect and to know that adjustment, acceptance and reinvention are realistic possibilities.
Here are a few quick tips that can might help. (Keeping with CDC protocol)
Be with people and stay connected.
Use the telephone, videoconferencing, or even just share a meal.
Accept social invitations even if you don’t feel like it.
If spirituality is part of your life, participate in prayer and tradition.
Accept help from others, even though it might be difficult. That might be accepting a bowl of soup for dinner, going for a walk at the beach or an invitation for lunch.
Join a support group.
In the South Bay contact The Gathering Place, a project of Providence-Little Company of Mary’s Trinity Hospice and sponsored by the Beach Cities Health District. Call (310) 543-3437. Also, contact the Bereavement Support Group at the Torrance Memorial Medical Center at (310) 784-3751. In other communities, contact your local hospital and hospice services.
S.D., thank you for your important and heartfelt question. My best wishes to you on your journey. Although there may never be a substitute for your loved one, in time, you can adjust and eventually embrace opportunities that provide you with new meaning and purpose.
Stay safe and well.
Helen Dennis is a nationally recognized leader on issues of aging, employment and the new retirement with academic, corporate and nonprofit experience. Contact Helen with your questions and comments at Helendenn@gmail.com. Visit Helen at HelenMdennis.com and follow her on facebook.com/SuccessfulagingCommunity.