Many life-changing incidents can be difficult to go through, but losing a spouse is one of the hardest to deal with. Grief is a normal and healthy response to loss, but it can take an emotional and physical toll on a person, and it can even develop into depression. Whether you’re a caregiver or close to someone who recently lost a spouse, it’s important to learn how to help a widow or widower cope with loss, especially if he or she is a senior.
For starters, learn as much as possible about the grieving process, including the common physical and emotional symptoms of grief. Physical symptoms can include headaches, digestive issues, loss of appetite, fatigue, and crying. Emotional symptoms can include confusion, agitation, forgetfulness, anxiety, guilt, and shock. Remember that there isn’t a “correct” way to grieve, and each person will experience grief in a unique way. Those in mourning need time and space to grieve on their own terms.
Learning the warning signs of depression is important too. While sadness is normal after losing a loved one, grief should be temporary. Signs that the person may be depressed include not feeling better as time passes, emotions that interfere with routine/daily tasks, no longer taking pleasure in favorite activities, or mentioning thoughts of suicide. If you notice any of these signs, contact a mental health professional immediately for guidance.
“The most important thing you can do is listen,” says the American Academy of Family Physicians. Don’t worry if you are unsure of what to say. Sometimes, someone in grief just needs to talk about his or her feelings. It’s okay to talk about the person who died; in fact, doing so can help the widow or widower feel less alone. Sometimes, just sitting with the person is enough. Try to read the person to see if he or she would rather not talk but doesn’t want to be alone.
There are a few things to avoid saying, such as “I know how you feel,” or, “He’s in a better place.” These phrases minimize the grieving person’s feelings. Also, everyone experiences grief differently, so you probably don’t know exactly how he or she feels.
Instead of waiting for the person to ask for help, offer to do something. You can make dinner, pick up a prescription, go grocery shopping, mow the lawn, or perform household chores. People are more likely to accept help when a specific offer is made over saying, “Call me if you need anything.”
Check in on the widow or widower weeks, months, and even years later. In the first days and weeks following a loss, the person is surrounded by support. However, the large support group slowly dissipates. Being there long-term is especially important for family and friends.
One widow told the Guardian that the first year is a rollercoaster of emotions, but the second year was often even harder, and year three wasn’t any easier. People drift away as they go back to their own lives. Meanwhile, the spouse of the departed needs support; not in “getting over” the death, but in taking the time and steps necessary to really, truly absorb it.
“It will become part of who they are,” she explained.
Check in regularly (more than once a month), and make a point to call or visit on birthdays and anniversaries. While you don’t necessarily have to avoid sharing about your own life, know that milestones and changes may affect your friend, even years later. For example, even something as simple and positive as you moving to a new house or your children starting a new school can stir up feelings of loss.
Losing a spouse is something that alters a person’s life. While the process of grief is natural, it’s often overwhelming. Having someone to lean on during the process is important. If you’re supporting someone who is a recent widow or widower, learn about grief and depression and be thoughtful and patient with the person. Remember that he or she will continue to need support, even years after losing his or her spouse.