Life’s later years are full of transitions. Children grow up and move away, the workforce is left behind, bodies and minds change. But perhaps the biggest change that seniors have to face is the death of a spouse. There’s no way to prepare for this earth-shattering, life-changing moment, but there are a few things you ought to know before it approaches.
It Will Affect Your Health
The death of a husband or wife shakes your world. After decades of intertwining your lives in every imaginable way, you’re suddenly facing the world on your own. So, it may not come as a big surprise that this intense grief impacts your health. Grief can cause you to lose your appetite, be unable to sleep, and experience aches and pains. And that’s not the only way grief can take a toll on your health — especially if you’re in your senior years.
In the aftermath of a spouse’s death, seniors are more likely to have a heart attack or suffer congestive heart failure, a phenomenon you may know as the “widower effect.” In addition, their immune systems weaken, leaving elderly grievers prone to illness.
And Your Mental Health
Grief’s mark isn’t limited to physical symptoms. A major loss like the death of a spouse comes with a big increase in stress, an insidious physical response that alters everything from moods to memory. Acute stress can affect concentration and memory, and may even trigger lasting cognitive decline. Seniors can develop depression alongside their grief, and for some, that depression sticks around even as the grief grows less intense.
The mental health effects of grief are more than a passing concern when it comes to the elderly. Seniors struggling to cope with their grief could turn to drugs and alcohol for relief, even if substances have never before had a presence in their life. While drugs and alcohol are harmful to people of all ages, they’re especially dangerous for seniors, and they play a role in the high suicide rate among the elderly. It’s important for seniors to get help when facing an addiction, whether it's from a professional, online resources or a rehab program.
Grief Looks Different for Everyone
If you learn only one thing about grief, let it be this: There is no right way to grieve, there are no “stages” of grief, and grief doesn’t work on a timeline. Your grief is yours and yours alone, and the way it manifests will depend on countless factors unique to your own life.
It’s important to not feel guilt or shame for being not sad enough or too sad, for crying too much or not enough, for finding new love too quickly or not at all. As long as you’re healing and taking care of your health, however you choose to grieve is OK.
You Need Support
It’s tempting to isolate yourself during this difficult time, but it might be the worst thing you could do. Talking about feelings and memories of a lost spouse is an important part of reconciling the complicated emotions of grief. But not everyone is comfortable talking about death, so it’s important to identify a support system you can lean on.
On top of someone to talk to, support is important because it helps identify concerning behavior changes that you might not notice in yourself. Perhaps you’re in such a fog that you hardly notice you haven’t eaten for days, or maybe you’ve convinced yourself that the extra glass of wine or two with dinner is perfectly normal. But a trusted confidant will take notice when you’re not yourself and help you find the resources to get back on track.
You Will Heal
Learning how to adapt to life without your spouse is a long and complex journey. It takes patience, persistence, and resilience to learn how to live on your own, and you’ll have a lot of wins and losses along the way. But at the end of it all, you’ll discover that there’s happiness, love, and comfort to be found even after the death of a cherished spouse.
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