Helping an Aging Parent Handle Grief

Helping an Aging Parent Handle Grief

What To Do When Your Parent Loses Their Spouse – Managing The Challenge of Grief When You Are Grieving Too


Dealing with grief from the loss of a spouse is extremely painful. It can be difficult for an adult child to help their aging parent cope with the loss since they too lost someone. Grief is a very normal response to loss and there is no right or wrong way for someone to grieve for their loved one.


The challenge for adult children is the “what’s next.” Once the dust has settled, what’s next for the aging parent left behind? How do you help them on their new path as widow/widower? Will they need to change their lifestyle or living arrangements? Do you need to step in as a caregiver or are they able to live alone independently?


There are so many questions and decisions to be made during this time that it can be overwhelming for everyone involved. Of course, while you understand that practical matters need to be handled, it painful and difficult to do when you are grieving as well.

Grief Facts

If you are concerned that your loved one has passed from grief to depression, these facts about grief may help you figure out whether your aging parent’s emotions are “normal” or not.


  1. The five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance) are not linear. Your parent may experience the stages in a different order, skip some stages or stay in one stage.


  1. Most people recover from severe grief within six months to 18 months.


  1. Loss is harder for men. It may also be more difficult for them to adjust to caring for their own needs if your parents held traditional roles in their marriage (wife did all cooking, cleaning, etc.).


  1. Not everyone needs a support group or counseling. Most grief seems to resolve itself so if your parent doesn’t want to join a support group or seek counseling, that’s OK.


When Grief Turns to Depression

So what do you do if it has been two years and your grieving parent is still not able to move forward? I had a client whose husband passed away the year I met her. Five years later, she was still terribly depressed. She had stopped going to church. She no longer visited with friends. She used to be a sharp dresser – she put everyone I know to shame with her outfits – but no longer did her hair or dressed in anything other than athletic wear (completely out of character for her). She was clearly depressed.


So how do you know if your aging parent is experiencing depression versus grief? The timeframe isn’t really indicative of depression. Some people and some cultures grieve for longer than you may think is normal. Below are signs that grief may have turned to depression. It is also important to note that people who have suffered from depression in the past may slip back into depression during the grieving process.


  1. Significant weight loss. Many people have loss of appetite while they’re grieving, however, if the weight loss is really significant or their lack of appetite is long-term, you should be concerned.


  1. Inability to perform daily functions. Does your parent struggle to get out of bed? Is the house a disaster or are they eating really poorly? Are they skipping grooming or personal care?


  1. Withdrawl from friends or loved ones. If you parent stops going to regular activities that he/she previously participated in, they could be depressed.


  1. While this one is a no-brainer, it is important enough to state, not just assume. If your parent is having thoughts of suicide, get them help immediately.


Grief is a very personal emotion and everyone handles it differently. Some people prefer to stay busy so that they are distracted while others can’t bear to get rid of the deceased person’s things. Whatever your parent is feeling, let them know that you are there for them and happy to talk if they want. Losing someone who you shared your life with for 30+ years is going to take a long time to get past, whether it was expected or not.


Handling the Business Side While Grieving

One of the most difficult parts of losing a spouse is the fact that you suddenly (or not so suddenly if it was due to illness) have to be responsible for everything. Whether your parents had a traditional marriage or a more modern arrangement, it is likely that they each had their roles in the marriage. Someone paid the bills, someone cooked the meals, someone did the laundry, and on and on and on.


Now, after possibly decades of not handling a task, your parent has to take on these chores, while dealing with their grief. In addition to grief, they are also older. Figuring out how to handle finances when you haven’t written a check in 30 years is a big task! It can be overwhelming and scary and they may not even know where to start.


If your parent is struggling to keep up with everything, suggest a family meeting where you and your siblings sit down with your parent to discuss the types of tasks that need to be done and how they should be addressed. Would your parent like to learn how to do these tasks? Can one of the adult children help with the task? Should you outsource the task? There are many solutions to every problem, so sitting together to work through the “to dos” is the best way to help your parent move forward.


What types of issues should you address? Of course, there are the issues related specifically to the death of a loved one, such as alerting all of their banks, insurance plans, retirement policies, social security, etc. Your parent may also need to submit for life insurance pay outs, spousal Social Security benefits and any other retirement or spousal support (military, etc.).


Once those issues are resolved, you can look at other general life to dos:

  • Bill payment
  • Insurance policies
  • Home Maintenance
  • Car maintenance
  • Managing finances/investments
  • Grocery Shopping
  • Cooking
  • Cleaning
  • Lawn care


While these tasks may be no brainers to you, remember, your parent may not have done some of things ever, or at least in the last 30 years. Be respectful and kind as you help them get up to speed. You want them to feel comfortable coming to you with challenges, not embarrassed to ask you for help.


It isn’t just elderly couples that go through this, think about your own relationship. Are there tasks you have passed on to your spouse that would suddenly become your responsibility? I know I haven’t taken a car in for an oil change or servicing in the last 13 years. I have also never dealt with our insurance policies aside from filing the paperwork. I bet you can think of things you don’t handle too! Now imagine you are 20 – 30 years older and trying to learn these tasks all while missing your other half. Not easy at all!



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