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Helping Your Parent Through the Loss of a Spouse

Discover helpful suggestions to help your parent through the loss of a spouse. Seniorly offers advice on supporting a parent who’s lost a spouse in assisted living.

By Seniorly Editor · Updated Sep 28, 2021
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The loss of a spouse is devastating at any age, and in seniors, the way they navigate this blow will have an impact on the course of their final decades. The grief a parent goes through when losing a spouse can have serious consequences if it goes unaddressed. One study conducted by the Harvard School of Public Health discovered that surviving spouses over age 50 had a 66% higher risk of death in the first three months after losing their spouse. 

As you’re grieving the loss of a mother or father, it’s also essential to be there to support your parent. At times you may need to withdraw to do your own grieving and recharge, but assisting your parent through their loss is essential for their health and well-being. It won’t be an easy journey, but here are a few things you can do to help as you walk with your parent down this difficult path. 

What happens when a parent loses a spouse in assisted living 

Losing a spouse while a part of an assisted living community comes with some unique challenges. Couples often have larger living areas, and when a partner passes your loved one may be faced with moving into smaller accommodations. Moving, even though it’s on the same property, often adds even more stress to your grieving parent. Talk to the staff to find out how long your parent has to move and work together to make the transition as easy as possible. 

You may also want to ask if special supports are in place for widows and widowers. Bereavement groups, counseling, and other forms of support may be easily accessible to your loved one on site. Staff members can also work with you to watch for the signs of continuing grief or depression in your parent after their loss. 

Understanding that grieving is a process

Realize that grieving is a process — it takes time. The sequence often progresses from the initial shock into anger, denial, a feeling of loss, and eventually acceptance, but many people go through all of these feelings repeatedly. The loss of a spouse is considered one of the biggest stressors an individual can ever face, and it will take time for your loved one to reach a place of acceptance. 

Anticipate grief triggers and offer support

Grief triggers are everywhere, particularly in the first year after losing a spouse. There will be the anniversary of your parent’s first date, their wedding anniversary, the first birthday without them, and first holidays. So many firsts show up in the first year, and your parent may need some additional support during those times. Try to anticipate these triggers so someone in the family can be there to extra help. 

Although the first year often proves difficult with all its ‘firsts,’ don’t forget about your parent as they enter the second year after their loss. For many widows and widowers, the second year is even tougher to navigate. During the second year, your loved one is no longer in shock and no longer numb to their new reality. Suddenly there’s room to feel the most cutting wound of losing a spouse – missing them. 

Unfortunately, in a society that shies away from grief, the bereaved frequently feel pressured to move on. Family and friends often expect the grieving to start moving forward after the first year, which leaves hurting people without as much support in that second year. Take the time to check in with your loved one often. Ask how they’re doing. Discuss their feelings. Let your parent know you’re there to help in this new stage of grief.    

Help your parent avoid big decisions 

Making decisions is often challenging after losing a spouse. A phenomenon commonly referred to as “widow brain” or “grief brain” has been observed in people who are grieving. Brain imaging studies done on those who are grieving have shown increased activity across a large network of neurons, and these areas are associated with mood, memory, conceptualization, perception, and even regulation of the heart and other organs. This shows the incredible impact that loss can have on the brain and the entire body. 

Of course, this doesn’t mean your loved one should be treated like they’re helpless. However, try to avoid having your parent make big decisions in the first few months after they go through this life-changing loss. 

Give your parent someone to talk to

It’s important to let your bereaved parent talk about their spouse. Take time to listen as they tell their stories and share their memories. You probably share many of the same memories with them, and it can be comforting for them to reminisce with you. It may also be a good idea to recommend that your parent join a bereavement group for widows and widowers. Check with local agencies, religious communities, and hospitals to see if they offer support groups for those who have lost a spouse. If your parent cannot get out, an online bereavement group makes it possible for them to connect with others without leaving their assisted living community.  

Be aware of signs of continuing grief 

Even if your parent appears to bounce back quickly, appearances are often deceiving. It’s important to be aware of some of the signs of continuing grief, which can include: 

  • Disorganization – Failing to complete a task before starting another.
  • Difficulty Concentrating – Your loved one may have a tough time focusing enough to watch a television show or read a book.
  • Lack of Motivation or Interest – They may question their purpose or question why they should show interest in anything.
  • Forgetfulness – Misplacing items, forgetting medications, or mailing out unsigned checks could all be signs your surviving parent is having a tough time focusing.

Although sadness is normal after your loved one loses a spouse, it’s important to keep an eye out for depression. Some of the signs of depression in seniors include: 

  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Feelings of worthlessness
  • Lack of appetite
  • Overindulgence in food or alcohol
  • Feelings of low self-esteem
  • Feelings of guilt
  • Unusual obsessive-compulsive behavior
  • Irritability
  • Restlessness
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Physical aches and pains
  • Sleep problems
  • Withdrawal
  • Crying spells
  • Fatigue

Depression puts your loved one at a higher risk for many other health problems, such as heart disease. If you observe these symptoms in your parent, make sure they get the professional help they need. 

Life after the loss of a spouse is a journey, and you can help your parent as they navigate their new path. While nothing will take away their grief, support and compassion from you are critical to their well-being. Be ready to listen, anticipate potential triggers, and know when it’s time to get professional help. And don’t forget to take time to grieve your own loss as you endeavor to be strong for your loved one.  

This piece is part of our Healthy Aging Handbook, read the next one to learn more about helping aging parents: How to Help Your Parent Plan Their Funeral
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