In the bereavement groups I facilitate with people over 55, I am struck by the myriad of losses they are experiencing.
Walt has been divorced for many years, estranged from his adult son, and grieving over the accidental death of his daughter who he expected was going to care for him.
Elena joined the group because many of her friends have died in the last year and she worries incessantly about who, including herself or her spouse, might be next.
Maurice came to the group because a recent physical limitation slows him down and foreshadows what he believes lies ahead as he gets older.
Not surprisingly there are also a number of persons in the group bereft over the recent loss of their life partner.
As a grief survivor myself, having lost my husband, father, mother, only sibling, and dog in the last decade, sitting with my bereavement group each week and listening to their eagerly told stories is actually a tonic. For me, there’s something sacred about emotions generated by deep grief.
For many of the group members, however, these encounters with loss are too painful to endure and they just want them erased. After all, the word grief means “a heavy burden.” It’s too soon for them, in the words of May Sarton, “to be lavish with riches made from loss.” Wanting to pace them, I too, withhold my growing understanding of the transformative nature of loss and try to strike a delicate balance between showing empathy and compassion for their feelings while also helping them process their emotions in ways that will help them grow and expand.
Here are three strategies that are especially useful in helping us cope with loss as we age:
1. Identify and Manage Obsessive Worry
Many grief survivors share that their biggest concern is dwelling on the loss or on their predicament, of which their worry is a predominant component. There are several ways to hit the pause button when this happens.
The first is to identify a “worry chair” at home or in their primary environment. Using a timer, they can sit in the chair for a prescribed amount of time, such as 20 minutes. When the alarm goes off, however, it’s time to get up and turn off the worry.
The worry chair has its origins in stimulus control which is an approach designed to interrupt an ingrained habit by intentionally arranging environmental conditions that hamper the undesired behavior – like anxiety.
A second possibility is to find a mantra such as the word “delete” clients can say aloud when worry overtakes them and escalates to a high level ( 9 or 10) on a 10-point scale.
The third option is to initiate some action or movement. Since worry is primarily cognitive, one way to interrupt the “monkey mind” is to start doing something such as sweeping the floor, potting a plant, cooking some food and so on.
A related strategy is to engage in some form of movement like taking a walk, doing some yoga, or practicing a new dance move.
2. Discover and Explore: Create New Patterns
One group member mentioned the difficulty in going to church alone because she and her spouse had made it a regular practice for many years. She was unable to currently attend church without having serious “meltdowns” in the sanctuary. Staying at home wasn’t much better except she could have her meltdowns in private. With two bad options, her Sunday mornings now felt empty.
One of the most common lamentations of grievers is that life as they knew it has been turned upside down. Nothing feels familiar anymore because of the loss event. At the same time, things that do feel familiar may be extremely painful.
One way to address this Catch 22 is to encourage grievers to become courageous explorers and create new patterns in their lives. What could this person do on Sunday mornings other than go to church or sit at home? After listening to others describe a plethora of activities they engaged in on Sundays, she too eventually developed a different pattern and routine.
Learning something new is one of the best antidotes to grief. Much as relaxation is incompatible with anxiety, curiosity is incompatible with grief. If grievers are hesitant to do a new activity alone, encourage them to do something novel with a friend. Rumi said: “There is a secret medicine given only to those who hurt so hard they cannot hope. It is this: Look as long as you can at the friend you love.”
3. Develop and Utilize Social Networks and Connections including Animal Companions
Grievers often feel alone. In part this is because their former social networks have been disrupted by their loss. It’s also because their current friends and colleagues are unlikely to be grieving and less patient with the griever’s struggles.
Because grief is a “heavy” emotion and can make grievers feel weighted down, they may feel less motivated to reach out to others. As challenging as bereavement is, adding loneliness to the mix simply makes the healing process more difficult, perhaps even out of reach.
One of the most consistent themes of the grief literature is that sadness is helped most by connections with other people. Yet as we age, social networks also diminish in size. Not only do we need to utilize our existing networks, we need to develop an new ones. Grief can push us out of our comfort zones so we go to different places, try novel activities, create meaning through volunteering,and make new friends in the process.
Animal companions can also help heal grief. I can attest to this point. When I felt most alone after the passing of my beloved husband, I rescued a three-year-old golden retriever named Abbey.
Until her recent death, Abbey was a constant companion who “held” my emotions as only a skilled therapist can do, and put her head and paws on my lap when I was most distressed. If it’s impossible to adopt a pet, fostering an animal or walking dogs from a shelter can still be very therapeutic.
The word healing means to make whole. Healing our losses is often a lifelong process that cannot be rushed. For many grief survivors, the emotional pain of loss is a difficult yet wonderful teacher. And in the most challenging of losses, grace can be found and shards of ourselves can be pieced back together.
Sherry Cormier, Ph.D is a licensed psychologist and a certified bereavement trauma specialist. She is the author of “Sweet Sorrow: Finding Enduring Wholeness After Loss and Grief, Counseling Strategies and Interventions,” the senior author of “Interviewing and Change Strategies for Helpers,” the co-producer of more than 100 training videos for Cengage Learning, and a public speaker and consultant. Contact Sherry at sherrycormierauthor.com.