Tips for Seniors: Coping with the Loss of a Spouse

Guest writer Jackie Waters shares her insight after the recent loss of her mother-in-law:

Tips for Seniors Coping With The Loss Of A Spouse

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Losing someone is one of the most difficult things we go through in a lifetime, and coping with that loss can take weeks, months, or years. Your spouse was your life partner and best friend. You saw them each morning and night so this sudden change is jolting. No one deals with it in the same way, and that’s okay. Grief affects us all differently and can take a toll on sleep, eating habits, mood, and our ability to perform daily tasks.

For those who have recently suffered a loss, there are some ways to deal with the effects that will help on the road to recovery. The key is to remember that there is no time limit; grief might affect you for a long time, although the pain will eventually lessen.

Be easy on yourself

Try not to compare your loss or your reaction to it to anyone else’s. Everyone copes differently and there is no specific amount of time that you are expected to grieve. You might begin to come to terms with it after a few weeks and move on toward healing, while others might take a year or more. Both are perfectly normal, so allow yourself to feel what you feel and don’t place pressure on any of it. Take your time. You may find that family and friends are pushing you to sort through your spouse’s belongings, but it is okay to put it off for a reasonable amount of time until you are ready. However, once you start, commit to it and get it done so you don’t have to revisit this painful experience more than once.

Expect to be emotional

Especially during the first couple of weeks after facing a loss, you will likely be very emotional, or your feelings may be erratic. You might experience anger, sadness, depression, denial, guilt, or any combination of these. This is normal, and the best way to combat those feelings is to deal with them one by one. Are you angry because you feel your loved one left you alone? Write him or her a letter and get those feelings out. Even if they can’t read it, it will give you some release – and possibly closure – to vent.

Don’t close yourself off

You may feel like distancing yourself from others, but now is the time to have help nearby. Allowing people into your life is a comfort and you’ll be able to talk about what happened, which can help you find acceptance a little more quickly. You might also consider seeking the assistance of a counselor or therapist who is trained to help those who are grieving, or even joining a grief support group for seniors. If you don’t feel comfortable talking to someone, keep a journal and write in it daily.

Take care of yourself

It’s all too easy to forget to take care of yourself when dealing with the loss of someone you were close to, but it’s important to keep up your routine as much as possible. Sleep when you’re tired, eat balanced meals, and try to get in daily exercise, even if it’s just to take the dog for a walk. Perhaps you and your spouse split the daily chores, or one of you was responsible for cooking while the other maintained the home. Maybe your mobility has significantly diminished, making everyday tasks difficult or even impossible. Bring in help if needed whether it is hiring help or having a friend or family member assist with meal prep and cleaning. Don’t forget to take care of yourself too. Find healthy ways to cope, such as being creative – painting, gardening, writing, playing music – and stay away from alcohol if you feel it might help you numb your feelings. It’s understandable to want to push the sadness away, but repressing it with substances will only make things worse.

Get a little help from a furry friend

Animals are wonderful companions, but they’re also extremely helpful to people who are experiencing grief, anxiety, stress, and depression. Spending time with a dog or cat can be very therapeutic and could help you get through this tough time a little more smoothly as they are always happy to be around you no matter what, and a quick cuddle is always close by.

Palliative Medicine and Death with Dignity

Palliative Medicine and Death with Dignity Co-Mingle

I have a lot of sadness around writing this. I’ve decided to officially resign from the volunteer rolls of the hospice organization I’ve served with in my community.  This does not come as an easy decision. Truthfully, I’ve not been in a position to volunteer for some time now anyway.  More importantly, I’m often reminded and all too aware of how my name and my points of view are considered by some in palliative and hospice medicine to be too controversial.

I know that some in the hospice community believe I am “anti-hospice.” Thankfully, those who actually know me and my work also know that I am a strong proponent of palliative care, of which hospice is an integral part.

I find the highest value in palliative and hospice care.

In fact, some of the richest experiences I’ve ever had in my life have come from interacting with the dying and those who care for them. I don’t want to sound cliché, but some of my best friends are hospice nurses.

What troubles me is this: some hospice folks are unwilling to discuss certain dying matters.  And others want to but can’t, for fear of losing their jobs.  It seems to me that folks who work in hospice should feel fully informed on Death with Dignity laws, so they will know how to respond to patients who have questions.  Believe me, even in states where there is no law permitting end-of-life prescriptions, patients still ask about that.

The fact that over 90% of the patients who choose to pursue an end-of-life prescription are also enrolled in and receiving palliative care and hospice services up to the time of their deaths is clear evidence to me that all end of life options are important.

Not “either-or, but “both-and.”

I know these tools and the people who provide them can live and serve in harmony.  The average length of stay in Oregon hospice is over 40 days. Here in Maine, it’s about 18.  The Oregon statistic speaks to me of a vital, viable service being offered that does support quality of life and give needed time to people to feel as complete as possible in their lives before they die.  In my mind and my heart, the end objective is to meet the needs of the one who is dying in a purposeful, compassionate, and open-minded way that honors who they are and what has meant the most to them.

I believe in dialogue when there is controversy.

I’ve dearly enjoyed my time as a hospice volunteer and I will continue to promote hospice and palliative medicine as a means to achieve quality of life as long as possible.

I will also continue to devote my time and energy to bringing visibility and awareness to how Death with Dignity laws work and how they are in complete harmony with the compassionate efforts of all end-of-life workers and caregivers to support peace, comfort, and respect to patient choice.  I believe in discussing studied research on this issue.  And I believe this education is important.

Valerie Lovelace, Executive Director, It’s My Death