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Caregiving for Someone Who’s Grieving

As we get older, people that we love inevitably pass out of our life. Whether it is a spouse, a sibling, or a friend, dealing with this type of loss is a process that takes time and nobody should have to do it alone.

In earlier times, a period of mourning was observed more formally. Wearing black clothing when mourning goes back to Roman times. In the 19th century, mourning involved a complex set of rules for dress and behavior. In some Mediterranean countries a widow might choose to wear black for the rest of her life.

Formalized mourning is rarely observed in our fast-moving culture and perhaps we have lost something in the process. The old rules for mourning recognized that grief is a process that demands time and that people in mourning need to be cared for. Too often, someone going through this process may feel that life has moved quickly on and left them behind to grieve alone.

The Process of Grieving

If you are a caregiver for a parent or a loved one that is experiencing loss, or if you are grieving yourself, it helps to know that grieving is normal process. Grief has its own stages and its own symptoms. The psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross described five stages of grief in her famous book On Death and Dying. Not everyone goes through these stages but many people do. The stages are:

  • Denial
  • Anger
  • Bargaining
  • Depression
  • Acceptance

Common symptoms of grief may include shock, sadness, guilt, anger, and fear. Physical symptoms of grief may include aches and pains, difficulty sleeping, loss of appetite, and fatigue. There are no rules for how long it should take to move through the stages of grief to acceptance. It is not a process that should be rushed, but there are warning signs for when normal grieving becomes an abnormal depression.

When Grieving Becomes Depression

When grief becomes worse over time instead of better, when grief keeps someone from resuming the normal activities of life, normal grief may have become complicated grief. Complicated grief is a state of being suspended and unable to move through the stages of grief. Symptoms might include:

  • Constant thoughts of the deceased person
  • Continued denial of the person's death
  • Pretending or imagining the person is still alive
  • Feelings of anger that are extreme and unrelenting

This type of complicated grief may lead to a severe depression. Common symptoms of depression include intense and constant feelings of sadness and hopelessness that are not relived by periods of normalcy. Normal guilt is more like a roller coaster, but depression is all downhill. Elderly people may show depression in characteristic ways. These include:

  • Loss of interest in activities
  • Social withdrawal
  • Weight loss
  • Increased use of alcohol
  • Preoccupation with death

How Caregivers Can Help

If there are signs or symptoms of complicated grief or depression get medical help. Depression is a disease that can and should be treated. For a loved one going through the normal stages of grief, here are some ways you can help:

  • Talk about the deceased person and use their name. No one wants to think of their loved as gone and forgotten.
  • Ask how you can help. Bring over a dinner, do some shopping, help with housework.
  • Be present as much as possible. Even if you don't know what to say, just being there is important.
  • Allow your loved one to talk and allow yourself to just listen patiently. It helps to let them share their memories out loud with you.
  • Continue to make contact. Grief doesn't end after the first few weeks or the first few months. Drop by to visit more often or make a phone call.
  • Remember that holidays and anniversaries can be grief triggers. Don't let your loved one be alone.
  • Suggest a bereavement or support group. Many seniors benefit from sharing their feelings and memories with others who have also experienced a recent loss.