We all experience loss at some point in our lives. Some of us experience it sooner or more often than others, but the fact remains that it is a reality of life. Yet despite being one of the few experiences every human on Earth can relate to, it can be extremely isolating.
Everyone processes grief differently. There is no single correct way to deal with loss. It’s an incredibly personal process. However, the support we receive and the coping mechanisms we adopt can be critical for our own mental and physical wellbeing.
For an observer — friends, peers, family — offering support can be intimidating. It’s hard to know when or how to reach out, or if they even want you to. In this post, we hope you will learn more about grief processing and the value of support systems. No one has to go it alone.
The Stages of Grief and How We Can Support Throughout
No discussion of grief processing would be complete without first laying out the stages of grief. However, we are going to deviate a little from the commonly known five step process (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance). Instead, these are nine stages of grief older adults may experience.
It is important to remember that everyone experiences these stages differently. Furthermore, not everyone may experience all of them. Nonetheless, someone who has experienced loss and is grieving is likely to go through several of these stages.
Each of these steps will include a description and things to look out for, and ways you can be supportive throughout.
1. Shock or Denial
Many of us have stories of people we have known, or even ourselves, who appear to be numb in the days immediately following loss. We may expect one to be emotional or grieving, and be confused when they don’t appear to react at all. As a friend or family member, it can be difficult to watch and navigate, but it is normal.
This is a time to be ready and available to give support. It’s important for someone who is grieving to know that they have support, though they may not actually want it just yet.
Shock and denial will eventually fade, and reality will begin to set in. Someone in this stage may seem “checked out,” often neglecting normal routines, housekeeping, or social activities.
Gently encourage them to seek out support systems, such as family and friends. More importantly, allow them to speak about loss on their own terms, if and when they feel ready. Someone who is grieving may want social interaction without needing to explain their grief. It’s a personal process.
As in the anger stage of the common five stages of grief, someone may be feeling resentment or hopelessness. It needs to be understood that grief-associated anger is not often expressed in outbursts as one might expect. Rather, someone in this stage is more likely to be in a consistent state of agitation that may be misdirected at others from time to time.
As a supportive observer, recognize that anger, even when misdirected, is natural. They will likely need space to process emotions. Patience is critical. Don’t be hurt if you receive any anger, and understand that it will pass in time.
4. Bargaining or Guilt
Some group this with the “Anger” stage, as they often, but not always, happen together. It’s not uncommon to hear “if only…” during this time. One may blame themselves or others, looking for a reason.
This can be an especially difficult stage. No one should have to blame themselves for loss. If things begin to spiral, it may be a good idea to have a few therapists to recommend. We can assist with that process.
5. Physical or Emotional Distress
It is important to remember that physical and mental health are directly related. That is why this stage can be particularly dangerous. In the weeks following a loss, one who is grieving may look at others moving on with their daily lives and feel like no one cares. In this stage, one may begin to exhibit physical symptoms, such as anxiety, poor sleep and appetite, and a lack of energy.
Here, it is important to remain committed to supporting your friend or loved one. It is easy to fade back as the weeks go by, which is when your support may be the most critical. Try to gently encourage good habits and routines, such as reminding them to drink enough water or sleep adequately. Grief may cause them to neglect their physical health and deteriorate. A support network is so important here.
Like the “Bargaining or Guilt” stage, depression may exhibit throughout. Grief-related depression is often characterized as acute self-pity and despair. Remember that depression can be exhibited in more than feelings of sadness or emptiness, which many assume to be the most common. Irritability or restlessness, lack of sleep or appetite, disinterest in previously enjoyed activities, and fatigue are all common signs of depression. Click here to learn more about depression in older adults.
Like in the previous stage, it is important to gently encourage consistent self-care. Make sure they are eating and drinking enough, getting enough sleep, and exercising as they can. Also, always pay attention to hints of self-harm or suicide. If you even suspect such thoughts, it’s a good idea to suggest a checkup with their primary care provider or with someone who can help refer a therapist. SEWA can help with that.
7. Loss and Loneliness
This is often the most painful stage of grief in older adults. Obviously, the timeline of these stages is deeply personal and is different for all, but it is common that one may take two to four weeks to arrive here. This is when the new reality begins to set in. One may look at issues they had before in new ways, such as suddenly obsessing over a health concern that had been present for years already. Many speak to a need to “fill the void.” Doing so can be done constructively, or destructively.
As friends or family, it is important to reiterate your support and to direct them towards support networks. It is also important to know if they have a history of substance abuse, or simply to watch for new, unhealthy habits. For many, it is common to “fill the void” with substances to dull the emotions they are feeling.
In this context, withdrawal means retreating from regular social ties. Someone in this stage is probably tired of explaining or discussing their grief. This may cause them to detach from normal social interactions to avoid further discussion. However, this also means retreating from social groups that they could depend on for support.
As a supporter, again, allow them to discuss their feelings on their own time. Allow them to socialize and talk without bringing up their grief. You may feel a natural need to express condolences or make an effort to improve their mood, but simply allowing them to speak normally without bringing up their loss can be appreciated. Still, a neutral therapist could help them process their feelings and ease towards reintegrating socially.
This is the final stage where someone who is grieving begins to turn a new corner. It doesn’t necessarily mean they’re all better again, or even close; loss lives with us. But it does mean that they are feeling ready to rejoin their life that continues on. One may be “filling the void” with constructive behaviors, such as new hobbies or rejoining social activities.
It is important to encourage constructive behaviors. Join in when invited! Suggest new ones! It doesn’t have to be big — maybe there’s a new movie you think they’d like, or an art exhibit to suggest. Whatever the case, you’ve been with them throughout their grieving process in different capacities.
Now, it is time to welcome them from some seriously dark times. Share in their joys, help spark new ones where you can, and always remember to remain supportive. Grief of loss remains with us for a long time. They may feel ready to step into their lives again, but they should always have their support network.
How Can a Community Support Someone Who Is Grieving?
When someone in our community is grieving — be it our family, social circle, work — there are efforts we can collectively make to create an atmosphere of support. There are many ways we can show our support for a grieving loved one or friend, such as the suggestions given with the stages of grief above.
First and foremost, we must all understand that everyone’s grieving process is unique and personal. We must understand that, if we offer help at a certain time and it is not accepted, it’s not personal nor is it cause to never offer help again. Community support is about giving space when necessary, an ear or a shoulder when needed, and loving, nonjudgmental support always.
Specifically, we each can:
Learn more about the stages of grief and signs of trouble in each (if you’re here, that’s already a good start!)
Listen without judgment
Educate yourself about resources that you may suggest at appropriate times
Check in regularly, but accept if they don’t want help at a given time
Follow up and commit to offers of support
Listen more, talk less
Furthermore, we should avoid:
Trying to “fix” their grief
Ignoring their grief or pretending it’s not there
Offering “bright sides,” or tactless encouragement
Grief is difficult. As friends and community members, we have to learn how we can fit into their process to help them along. Simply helping daily chores such as cooking or cleaning can be incredibly important, as we saw throughout the stages of grief. Practical help that can ease the burden is often overlooked.
Never judge. Let them cry if they need it. Sometimes, one of the healthiest and most cathartic things we can do is to simply feel our emotions fully. But that can be difficult and painful, and having someone who allows us to be open and vulnerable without fear of judgment is vital.
Allowing open emotion may feel strange in our own community, but it is part of healing. We can work together to create and maintain a space of love, compassion, and support for all.