Helping an Aging Parent Grieve the Death of a Spouse

The death of a spouse is a devastating blow to the surviving partner, but made especially challenging when the couple has been together for generations. How do you comfort your mother or father when they have lost one half of a whole? It isn’t easy, but it is possible to ease their pain while recovering from your own loss.

Recognize their unique grieving pattern. Grief typically comes in five stages. However, not everyone will experience these in the same order or for the same duration. If the death was the result of a chronic illness, your surviving parent may continue to be caught up in taking care of details, such as paying bills and writing thank you notes to concerned friends and relatives. Don’t force your parent to fall into any particular stage of grief, as it will come when they are physically and emotionally ready to acknowledge their loss. Johns Hopkins Medical Center offers a more in depth review of grief and loss in this Health Library article.

Help your parents take care of their physical needs. There is no denying that the death of a spouse is a stressful event. According to American Psychological Association, stress can impair the immune system, leaving your grief stricken parents more susceptible to physical illnesses. Make sure your mother or father has access to healthy foods, including a variety of fruits and vegetables, and continues with regular visits to their primary care physician. You can also help with household chores, yard work, cleaning, cooking, and transportation needs.

Be understanding of personality changes. Grief takes a toll on the body and the mind. A grieving parent may have a sudden change in behavior after the death of their spouse. The elimination of a long-term partnership means your surviving parent must find new ways to fill their days. A grieving father, for example, may suddenly lose interest in a beloved activity, such as golf. Depression may entice a newly-widowed woman to let her home fall into disarray. Forgetfulness, disorganization, and concentration issues are all common in the weeks and months after a spouse’s death.

Watch for signs of substance abuse. reports that older adults are at a risk of prescription drug abuse as they have access to more prescription medications than any other demographic. Many seniors are prescribed opioids and benzodiazepines to treat chronic pain, anxiety, or insomnia. These drugs, which include Percocet, Vicodin, OxyContin, Ativan, Valium, and Xanax, and are highly addictive. A parent suffering a loss may overindulge in these medications as a way to numb their mind against a new, unwanted reality. An older adult with a prescription medicine addiction may visit multiple doctors to get a prescription for the same medication. They may talk about their medicine often and get defensive when you ask about it. Seniors who have been treated for drug or alcohol abuse in the past are more likely to turn to their prescription medications in times of emotional distress.

Don’t neglect yourself. You have suffered a devastating loss alongside of your parent. And though you will no doubt put your mother or father’s needs ahead of yours, it is important to ensure your physical and mental well-being remains on track. Get plenty of sleep and talk about your feelings to your own spouse or close friends. You may want to consider hiring a caretaker respite service to help your parent once a week so that you can have some much needed time for self-reflection and to take care of your personal responsibilities.

Losing a partner and a parent is one of the most traumatic events a family can experience. You and your aging parent may benefit from the services of a professional counselor or grief support group to help ease the transition to a life without your loved one.



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