How to Help an Elderly Person Cope with the Loss of a Spouse

Death of Elderly SpouseIf you have an elderly friend who has suffered the loss of a spouse, we’d like to offer some specialized advice.

Although a younger person—let’s say, under 60—who loses a spouse may appear to bounce back and resume a normal life a little faster, the mourning process really isn’t any different for the elderly.

They may, however, have fewer opportunities to resume a normal social life and may tend to isolate themselves. This can be especially true for elderly men, so we’ll be referring to the surviving spouse as “he” and “him.”

  • Encourage him to talk about his wife, to reminisce, and to share memories.
  • If he likes to write or tell stories, encourage him to put his memories of her in writing or on tape.
  • Share your own favorite memories, and use her name.
  • If photos of her were removed from albums and used for the memorial service, take time to help him replace the photos, and use it as an opportunity to share happy memories.
  • Do not rush him into going through her belongings; wait until he brings up the subject, unless there is a very good reason to do it sooner.
  • Be ready with gentle suggestions for disposing of or donating her belongings if you feel it would be best, but allow him to decide as much as possible. Avoid the “swoop and dispose” approach.
  • Invite him out of the house often, but don’t expect him to take you up on every invitation; being at home in familiar surroundings can be comforting.
  • If there were favorite places they frequented (Bingo parlor, coffee shop, movie theater, church), make an effort to help him visit there again to relive fond memories and make new memories.
  • Acknowledge his grief and help him understand it is normal and necessary to cry or express grief in any way that feels right to him.
  • Watch him for signs of clinical depression, failure to eat or otherwise take care of himself, or a tendency to isolate himself from contact with others.
  • Does he live on his own? If so, and if there are things he doesn’t know how to do because she did them for him (laundry, simple cooking tasks, running the dishwasher/vacuum/washing machine), either teach him—and leave written instructions if necessary—or provide daily help for him.
  • Spend time with him as much as possible without being intrusive, and encourage his friends to visit him and call him often. People tend to forget about calling and visiting after the first few weeks.
  • Be especially attentive on those special occasions—the birthday of the deceased spouse, their wedding anniversary, and other days that may be meaningful.
  • Be sure his doctor knows of his loss so that the doctor can watch for changes in his mental and physical health.

To summarize: be gentle, be available, and allow him to grieve at his own pace while providing the support he needs, both practical and emotional.

Contributor: Jenny Mertes

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