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Grief – Especially Hard During Holidays – Is a Year-Round Journey

Loss and its partner, grief, are an inevitable part of life, but they are especially present in the lives of older people. I’ve been with many people as they walk with grief, both as a friend and in my career as a social worker. And four years ago, I began traveling my own grief journey when my husband died.

Following that event, I joined our New Beginnings lunch, a grief support group for widows living at Asbury Solomons retirement community, which is my home, and I now facilitate the group. We meet monthly in our beautiful dining room for lunch, talk and companionship. 

Holidays, which are usually happy times, are especially difficult for grieving people. There is no foolproof way to handle Christmas, birthdays, and anniversaries. But making a plan will help.

Some people make major changes in routine. A family I know changed the traditional menu. Another planned a trip instead of celebrating at home.

Try to include your loved one in the day. Pictures help. So do stories of the deceased family member. Light a special candle. When Grandma is no longer with you to make those special cookies, give copies of her receipts to the guests. Tears are okay. As one of the women in my group said: There will come a time when those painful thoughts are just lovely memories.

Here are a few more general ideas which have helped others and might assist in your grief journey.

Walk slowly; be gentle
I have a handout I give to new members that begins: “Do not hurry as you walk with grief; it does not help the journey.” There is no timetable. The journey will take as long as it takes. The grief journey is not straightforward. On the way to peace, there are detours and hard spots. Some are unexpected. Also remember, every grieving person is different.

Don’t expect too much from yourself. There are limits to being brave. You do not have to be a model for anyone. You are simply yourself trying to find a new lifestyle as a widow or, perhaps, a childless mother.

The handout ends: “Be gentle with the one who walks with grief. If it is you, be gentle with yourself.”* When I am impatient with myself or with others, I try to remember: Be gentle.

Accept help
Many tasks must be accomplished when a loved one dies. You don’t have to do them all yourself. Accept help. Concerned friends don’t always know how to help. Accept what people offer. Tell others what you need. Love from family and friends is healing. Don’t try to do it all alone.   

Some people turn over financial matters to a family member or trusted professional. Help managing the medical bills is also useful. My friend’s son handles service appointments for her car. I asked my grandson to help me sort and pack his grandfather’s clothing for donation to our local thrift shop. I visualized a lovely afternoon of talk about Ron, who was a terrific grandparent. Instead, I got the help I asked for: sorting and packing. But it was good. I learned not to assume how my helper would help.

Some of the widows in our community find it too easy to become isolated. They have to force themselves to accept invitations to dinner in our dining room or to a planned event. Try to say yes to every invitation.  

Be mindful of your health
The negative impact of stress on health is well established. Additionally, there are statistics from numerous studies of a “widowhood effect.”** In elderly populations, people are more likely to die within six months of their spouse’s death than people with the same characteristics who live with their spouse. A frail, elderly couple died here this summer within days of each other. I have also observed serious illness and accidents in the months after loss of a loved one.

So again, be gentle with yourself. Follow good health practices: exercise, get plenty of sleep (including naps, if you need them) and eat a healthy diet. See your doctor promptly if you have new physical symptoms. They may be related to stress and sadness, but they could also be serious physical issues. The mind-body connection is real, and prompt medical attention is important.

Be in touch if you have concerns about your grief experience, and I will try to answer questions or make suggestions. There are many roads to wellness.

*For a complete copy of this lovely meditation, email me: melwell@comcast.net
**Check widowhood effect on Google for specific references.


Mary Ellen Elwell

Submitted by Mary Ellen Elwell

A resident of Asbury Solomons continuing care retirement community in Calvert County, Md., Mary Ellen is a former college professor and social worker. She helps run a grief support group at Asbury Solomons, writes for the community’s resident newsletter and is an active participant in the community's Book Club.

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