Grief is a normal part of life, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Losing a loved one is painful and confusing, and it tends to become more common as we age. Understanding the stages of grief in seniors can help you support friends or family who are mourning, and it can help you navigate the emotions if you’re going through them yourself.
There are many misconceptions about the stages of grief. It’s common to hear about five stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. However, the grieving process is rarely this straightforward. Not everyone experiences all of these feelings, and they don’t always occur in this specific order. Your state of mind can change from day to day or even from minute to minute.
Grief is an incredibly complex and difficult experience, and it can be hard to describe the process. It’s also very personal. Everyone feels grief differently, and there’s no wrong way to grieve. If your process is different from those around you, it doesn’t mean that anyone is doing something wrong.
It’s important to remember that the stages of grief are a loose guideline to explain mourning. We can’t always categorize every feeling or predict how the experience will unfold.
Here Are Some of the Most Common Stages of Grief in Seniors
Shock and denial are often the first emotions seniors experience when facing grief. Sometimes, the affected individual has trouble processing and absorbing the information. They may not seem to acknowledge that their loved one has passed away.
Other times, the individual may realize on some level that they’ve lost someone, but the fact hasn’t fully sunk in. They may feel lost or detached as they try to distance themselves from the situation. This can be a defense mechanism in the early days of grief.
Anger can come and go throughout the process of grief. Seniors may feel angry at a specific person or event, or they may feel a general sense of anger at the world. Loss is never fair, so many people feel angry because of the lack of control they have over the situation.
Anger looks different for everyone, especially during grief. Some people lash out at others for small mistakes or misunderstandings, and others withdraw and isolate themselves. Anger can also cause physical symptoms like muscle tension or a racing heart rate.
Bargaining is a complicated stage of grief, and it may look strange to an outsider observing it in someone else. It can happen as a response to the loss of control you may feel after a loved one passes away. It’s difficult to come to terms with death, so some people will try everything in their power to take control of the situation.
Bargaining often takes the form of “if only” statements. You may over-analyze the time leading up to your loved one’s passing, considering all of the different paths that may have caused a different outcome. Some people turn to their religion during the bargaining stage, trying to make a deal with a higher power to bring back their loved one.
Guilt often goes hand-in-hand with bargaining, too. It’s common to want a clear explanation or reason for a loved one’s passing, and unfortunately, many people blame themselves.
Depression often sets in as the mourning individual starts to accept the reality of the loss. In some seniors, depression takes the form of extreme sadness or despair. In others, depression causes a loss of energy, lack of motivation, or feelings of numbness.
Once again, grief is different for everyone. Feelings of depression may last for a few days or for years, and they may come and go at different intensities. Also, it’s common for seniors to be private about their emotions. If you have a loved one who is experiencing grief, they might not show signs of depression, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t affected by the loss. It’s important that we never make assumptions about someone’s experience.
The last of the five traditional stages of grief, acceptance is the process of coming to terms with the loss. At this point, the grieving individual resumes their normal activities. They may find new hobbies or make new friends to restore their sense of purpose after the loss.
Acceptance rarely looks like happiness. Instead, it typically looks like a state of peace. Acceptance also doesn’t involve putting the loss entirely behind you. When you lose someone close to you, the grief never goes away completely. In the acceptance stage, though, you can manage the feelings while carrying on with your life.
Disorganization isn’t one of the traditional phases of grief, but it’s one of the most common signs of grief in seniors. This usually happens as the individual tries to complete their everyday activities shortly after a loss. They may abandon their typical routines or take much longer than usual to complete tasks.
Disorganization during grief is sometimes mistaken for dementia in seniors. To an observer, the change in behavior may look like memory loss or cognitive decline. However, disorganization is a temporary phase that will improve as the person works toward acceptance.
Anxiety can happen alongside anger or depression during grief, or it can happen as a separate stage. If you lost a spouse or close family member, you may feel anxious to navigate life without them. Many people feel anxious about the concept of death and their own mortality after they lose a loved one.
Anxiety can take the form of obsessive, fearful thoughts and persistent worry, or it can be more physical in nature. Difficulty sleeping, nausea, headaches, and dizziness are all symptoms of anxiety.
Grief is one of the hardest experiences people go through. It affects individuals of all ages, but it can be particularly difficult for seniors. Older adults are more likely to feel lonely or isolated, which can make grieving even more challenging. The best thing you can do for a loved one who has lost someone is listen and support them. Even if they don’t want to talk about it, simply being a presence in their life can be very meaningful.
If you’re experiencing grief, remember that you’re not alone. Try to reach out to family, friends, or your community for support as you process the loss. Grief support groups can be an excellent resource to connect with people who are going through something similar.
Most importantly, try to allow yourself to feel any emotion that arises. A wide range of emotions are normal and even expected during grief, and trying to suppress them can make the mourning process even harder. Take it one day at a time, and look for opportunities for support whenever possible.
If you’re grieving the loss of a loved one, counseling may help. Blue Moon Senior Counseling offers therapy for seniors experiencing grief, mental health disorders, or other struggles. You don’t have to go through loss on your own. Contact Blue Moon Senior Counseling today to connect with a licensed therapist.