NDSU Extension Service - Ramsey County


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Loss Later in Life

Loss Later in Life


 Although the death of a loved one generally is considered the most difficult loss, we grieve whenever we lose something significant and in which we have invested ourselves—our time, energy, affection, money, or dreams and hopes.

Most people cope well with loss; some even report experienc­ing personal growth and learn­ing new skills. However, other people are devastated and have great difficulty adjusting—sometimes for years. Some may never have coped well with loss or lack the resources to cope with such changes.

Loss is a common experience for many older people, particularly as they become older and frailer. Some losses often related to aging are:

• Death of a spouse

• Death of friends

• Loss of job through retirement

• Loss of roles

• Loss of health

• Loss of control and decision making

• Loss of home and community because of a move

• Loss of a body part

• Loss of the ability to drive

• Loss of independence

• Loss of status in a youth-oriented society

• Loss of ability to see or hear

Because loss is a common theme in later life, it’s important to understand its potential signifi­cance, to be able to identify the subtle as well as the dramatic losses older people experience, and to recognize when a person’s behavior may be a response to such losses. Mental confusion, disorientation, and withdrawal can result when an older person experiences emotional overload imposed by losses.

There is no one “normal” or “right” way to grieve. Just as we live in different ways, we grieve a loss in different ways. A variety of feelings and behaviors may be experienced. One person may have an outpouring of tears. Another might show no emotion yet feel just as much pain. When people do not understand these differences, misunderstandings can occur.

Com­munication with each other and respect for each family member’s way of grieving are important to coping and growing as a family through grief.

Some people report feeling dead themselves or anesthetized. This is said to be nature’s way of helping us through an experience that oth­erwise would be overwhelming and painful. It deadens the pain and give us time to absorb what has happened, mobilize our internal resources, and prepare for difficult times ahead.

During this period, people often function like robots. They may feel detached from events hap­pening around them and almost “out of body,” as if they are observing what is going on rather than experiencing it. Therefore, it’s a mistake to judge that some­one is doing just fine because she appears composed shortly after a major loss or at the time of a funeral. The real anguish and distress may have not yet begun or simply may not be obvious.

Shock can be experienced even when a loss is anticipated or considered a blessing, such as when a family member dies after a long illness or intense pain.

Shock, disbelief, and denial last for varying amounts of time—from minutes to weeks—for different people. Generally, the more traumatic and unexpected the loss, the more likely a per­son will deny its reality

People need adequate time to face the reality of their loss. Funerals, memorial services, and viewing the body are all ways of reinforcing the reality of a death. They also create a climate for receiving support from family and friends.

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