Losing a loved one is a life-altering experience. When that loved one is a spouse whom one spent many decades with, the loss is even more tragic. The grief that follows the loss affects the widow or widower both emotionally and physically. If your loved one is experiencing the difficult process of grief, there are many ways you can support him or her, including being present and patient, helping with tasks, monitoring his or her health, and more. With a solid support system, in time, he or she can move forward and get back to enjoying life.
The Effects of Grief
Grief makes our bodies produce an abnormally high level of cortisol (the stress hormone), which can exceed ten to twenty times more than the normal levels. The increased levels of stress weaken the body’s immune system, making it more susceptible to many illnesses. Grief can also lead to changes in eating habits, restlessness, fatigue, issues with sleeping, and various other physical symptoms.
When your loved one knows that all of these symptoms are expected and completely normal, he or she may feel less worried. Acknowledging and appropriately expressing the emotions of grief are perhaps the most helpful ways to lessen stress. Emotional symptoms of grief include disbelief, denial, shock, anger, despair, guilt, confusion, yearning, and sadness. The intensity and duration of each emotion varies by person, and a few emotions can linger or a person’s mood can swiftly change.
Supporting Your Loved One
While consoling a loved one who’s grieving is arduous, consoling someone whose spouse has died is even more difficult. It can be especially challenging when the person who has died is also a loved one, as you are probably mourning the loss as well. Remember that every person experiences grief differently; while some people may decide to quietly grieve, others may decide to go the distance and honor their loved one by starting a nonprofit organization in their name — it’s really all up to the individual. Losing a spouse isn’t the same as the loss you’re facing, so never assume that you know exactly how your loved one feels.
Try to be understanding when offering support. You can help your loved one by listening and encouraging him or her to talk about the deceased spouse. Patiently allow your loved one to express grief in his or her own way. Also, tend to your loved one’s physical needs, and ensure he or she is getting the care needed. Proper nutrition, exercise, and rest are essential.
Exercise doesn’t just keep your loved one healthy and fit; it can also be an important coping mechanism. While grieving, your loved one may not feel like eating, but a well-balanced diet is essential to one’s health. Many times, those in mourning find favorite comfort foods to be both appetizing and soothing. Many people enjoy making their deceased spouse’s favorite dish as a way to honor them and reminisce.
When grief is unresolved, it can manifest into a form of depression called complicated grief, which severely interferes with function and quality of life. People with complicated grief have an increased risk of cancer, cardiac disease, hypertension, suicide, and substance abuse. Substance abuse can lead to even more health issues and can actually prevent someone from overcoming grief. Be sure to watch for signs of substance abuse and get them the help they need, even if your loved one has never had any issues with addiction in the past.
Going through the grieving process takes time, and the process and timeframe are unique to each person. Supporting someone through the process isn’t easy, but with a support system, your loved one can work through grief and learn to accept the reality of his or her loss. Eventually, your loved one will regain their footing and find happiness in this new chapter of life.
Annabelle Harris is the creator of Elders.Center. Her goal is to help soon-to-be seniors and already-seniors move gracefully into their golden years with less fear and more confidence. The site features a plethora of resources to help answer common and not-so-common questions about aging.