Grief and the elderly
July 31, 2014 3:39 PM   Subscribe

How do the elderly process loss?

I'm right now facing up to the imminent death of a parent. My grandmother is facing the death of a child. This is the first time I'm experiencing such grief and a large part of it is because my parent is dying young with hopes and potential unfulfilled.

This experience is making me wonder what the elderly go through when they lose someone in their own age group. Does grief at loss have the same sharp edge if you lose a 94 year old sister as when you lose one in her thirties?

More generally, does it become easier with multiple bereavements? Will it be easier for my grandmother to deal with losing a child at this age given that she's already lost parents, one of her siblings and a spouse?

Personal experiences are welcome as are suggestions of reading material.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (16 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
More generally, does it become easier with multiple bereavements?

The oldest living person I know (who is 99) proclaims loudly and often that she wishes she was dead because all her friends are dead. She loves her children and extended family, but she doesn't feel life is really worth living without her friends. Her opinion is it's best to make it to 90 and no further.
posted by sallybrown at 3:44 PM on July 31, 2014 [8 favorites]

Oh and you might find Roger Angell's "This Old Man" interesting: "But I believe that everyone in the world wants to be with someone else tonight, together in the dark, with the sweet warmth of a hip or a foot or a bare expanse of shoulder within reach. Those of us who have lost that, whatever our age, never lose the longing: just look at our faces."
posted by sallybrown at 3:47 PM on July 31, 2014 [43 favorites]

I think if anything it becomes harder. My grandparents seemed to feel that with each person they lost, their world was dying and not taking them along. It's not like you're losing a best friend at thirty, when you're likely going to find another best friend and maybe be as close to them as you were to your lost friend. You're losing a friend and with it, the certainty that you'll ever have that kind of a connection with another person again. If you're widowed young, you may find another spouse. If you're widowed at 94, you'll probably live out the rest of your days alone.

And I think losing a child, no matter what your age, is probably the hardest loss to cope with.
posted by town of cats at 3:52 PM on July 31, 2014 [4 favorites]

I often wondered about this when my grandmother was at that point where she seemed to be loosing a friend every few months. I never asked her about this, thought. I assume the pain of loosing someone might be just as strong, but the rest of the thoughts and feelings might be different. It's not the same thing to grieve a young person and "all that could have been" and to grieve a 87 year old friend who dies in her sleep.
posted by CrazyLemonade at 4:08 PM on July 31, 2014

I think that it depends on how connected to reality and the world outside themselves the elderly person still is. From what I've seen of family members, dementia seems to take a certain amount of the edge off of loss (including the loss of a child) -- maybe because it becomes difficult for a person suffering from dementia to process what death means?

From what I've seen, the same feelings are there whatever the person's age, but their cognitive understanding of the loss/event changes as their brain changes. I don't think it's that the elderly have a different emotional perspective than any other given person, but that age can create mental/cognitive deficits in some people that make death too abstract to really understand or process for them, and I do think that that softens the blow.
posted by rue72 at 4:11 PM on July 31, 2014

It's not like you're losing a best friend at thirty, when you're likely going to find another best friend and maybe be as close to them as you were to your lost friend.

Having lost both a best friend and a partner by 25, let me assure you that is some damn cold comfort.


I would wager it varies more from person to person than with age. I've certainly noticed when I've been at visitations/funerals, the older attendees often seem to be less distraught, but I don't know necessarily know those people that well, and their public grief may be very different from their private grief. And I've definitely noticed that I am probably in that top ten percent most griefiest of grievers. I do know that when my aunt was dying, my grandmother and father - just like pretty much all the other family around - were absolutely devastated. The loss of a child - at any age - seems to be a particularly poignant experience. I would wager your grandmother's not finding this experience particularly easy.
posted by obfuscation at 4:12 PM on July 31, 2014 [2 favorites]

My wife is the bereavement coordinator for a hospice. I asked her about this and she wanted me to tell you there are no generalities to grief among the elderly as opposed to grief among the non-elderly. Everyone processes differently. The loss of a child can be devastating no matter how old you are.

I encourage you to seek out professional counseling - perhaps a social worker, a therapist, a member of the clergy, anyone - not only for you but for your grandmother as well.
posted by incessant at 4:16 PM on July 31, 2014 [4 favorites]

I don't honestly know what it's like for the elderly, but I do know what it's like for someone who has dealt with multiple bereavements.

There was a period of time that I was losing friends left and right due to the AIDS epidemic. Each one was a major and painful loss because each one was a different person, and brought a different light to my life. I did find a lot of coping mechanisms, but mainly with those who were surviving along with me. I imagine if your grandmother has lost the people who help her deal with loss, this is especially difficult.

I hope for your grandmother's sake (and for mine as well) that we have people to support us, help us cope and cry with us when the loss is overwhelming.
posted by Sophie1 at 4:19 PM on July 31, 2014 [3 favorites]

I'm not old, but I am not young. I have learned in nearly 50 years how to grieve well, and efficiently, and without great public display. It hurts as much as it ever did, but I now know what to do, and how to make it a part of my life rather than an open wound, constantly bumped and bleeding, an acceptance of the price of love. I've seen others who've chosen not to love, for fear of pain, and their grief seems less, but so does their joy.

And damn* you sallybrown, for making me cry this morning. I, too, do so long for "that bare expanse of shoulder".

*And by "damn you", of course I mean "thanks for posting such an insightful quote and the link to the great article it came from".
posted by b33j at 4:49 PM on July 31, 2014 [15 favorites]

My experience, based on my elderly parents and inlaws and other relatives (in their 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s) is exactly this: they seemed to feel that with each person they lost, their world was dying and not taking them along.

I remember my mother-in-law feeling very very low when a first cousin to whom she was close died and the children did not think to let her know. The elderly are often forgotten and marginalized when they are in retirement homes and out of sight. There comes a time when many phone calls and letters bring news only of another death, and the class notes in college newsletters get longer and longer with the names of the dead. This is not something anyone gets used to. MIL also grieved terribly when she lost her second husband, whom she had married when she was in her 70's. She grieved as much if not more for him than she did for the boyfriend she lost in her youth in WWII. Losing someone close to you never gets easier. When my mother's sister died at age 75 my mother (age 79) was distraught. This was her younger sister and she was not supposed to go first.

Elizabeth Bishop was older when she wrote her poem "One Art". The poem is about loss of various kinds, and says, basically (as this analysis says): "This art of loss is one that is undoubtedly "too hard to master" (line 18) for no matter how practiced we become at the "art of losing", we will never really be ready for losses, which will always seem "like disaster" (line 19)."

From a religious perspective, there is the C. S. Lewis book he wrote about losing his wife A Grief Observed. Joan Didion wrote about the death of her husband in The Year of Magical Thinking. Neither is easy reading.

Finally, I'm in my mid 50's. My mother died five years ago at the age of 85. It was not easy for either of us. I'm a controlled person and did not display my grief publicly at the memorial service or funeral, but the grief was nonetheless profound.

My sympathies to both you and your grandmother. It helps so much to have family and friends when facing loss. Your grandmother having you will be a great help, and hopefully she can help you as well.
posted by gudrun at 5:02 PM on July 31, 2014 [8 favorites]

I'm almost 75. My mother died about 2 years ago at 95 after sinking into dementia. Over the last several years as pretty much all her friends died, as did here husband, she reacted as she had during the rest of her life - she was quietly sad and only shared mourning with herself.

When she died I thought of how much she would have wished she were dead if she had been able to realize how undignified and dependent she had become and tried to think of death as a blessing for her but I still miss and think about her daily.
posted by path at 6:02 PM on July 31, 2014 [7 favorites]

My grandfather-in-law lived to be over 100 years old. He lost all his siblings (even those younger than him) and two of his three children. All those losses took a toll on him. Losing a child affects most people profoundly. Honestly I think the experience of grieving is not as big a factor as who you are as a person and maybe what sort of support you receive.

My sympathies to your family, these losses are very hard.
posted by dawg-proud at 6:16 PM on July 31, 2014 [1 favorite]

I too am not old but also not young and have been through several deaths. I can only say I've gotten used to it in the sense that I think of Death with the capital "D" now - a proper name, a presence unto itself. The feelings are no less intense because I've met Death before, at all, nor is the profound sense of loss and damage to my world. But I am no longer quite as mind-numbingly shocked and rocked to my core by the very presence or arrival of Death per se. It's not entirely a stranger. And that's something, to be sure, however troubling. Didion's Year of Magical Thinking, mentioned above, captured this shock and rocking so well and was a very, very painful read for me. But I also realized some time after reading it that my shocked soul was something shared by others. As well, now when I see artistic depictions of Death as a being, or read the Emily Dickinson poem, etc., I understand, and agree, and also feel somehow less alone in my experiences with Death.
posted by beanie at 10:28 PM on July 31, 2014 [4 favorites]

I forgot to add that I find the book Rules for Old Men Waiting by Peter Pouncey (fiction) very meaningful.
posted by beanie at 10:41 PM on July 31, 2014

The older you get the more losses you've experienced overall - it no longer comes as much of a shock. If you're old enough to be in a nursing home you've lost so much in the last twenty years that loss is part of the core of your being. You've lost a spouse and/or a child and your parents and siblings and pets and so very many friends, some young, some old, some tragically and for others death was a release from torture. Very often you can see minor changes in a friend that speak to you of time getting short. It's true that Death becomes something more than just that creepy shadowy thing you hope isn't real when you're young and healthy, but that's not necessarily a bad thing, either, to know the reality of it.

It's never, ever easy, that's the only certainty. I'm sorry for your grandmother to lose her child, but Lordy I'm sorry for you to lose your parent too early; if you two hold onto each other you'll both come through it much better than if you try going it alone.

I hope the passing is gentle and that you and your grandmother are both okay. I'll be thinking of you.
posted by aryma at 1:55 AM on August 1, 2014 [5 favorites]

At 53, I don't grieve individual deaths, losses, disappointments etc. anywhere near as much as I used to. However, cumulatively, it's still depressing.

And I'm not sure how much is due to age, life experience, and increased ADD (which is great for grief), and how much is due to the unique circumstance of each event.
posted by serena15221 at 11:09 AM on September 14, 2014

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