By Karen Nicola MA Grief Educator/Coach
Currently, my husband and I live with my mother, supporting her as she encounters the challenges of aging and the reality of her mortality. More is required of me as time progresses and her health declines. Being sensitive to her losses and how she grieves them is a fine art I learn daily. Fortunately, I can apply my understanding of healthy grief, watch for signs of unhealthy grief, and let her know I hear her even when she cannot find the words to articulate the confusion and pain.
As Chaplains for senior living communities, I can imagine your spectrum of support is even wider. Your ministry is to the residents, their families, as well as the staff members. Each group has their own specific needs and ways to process grief.
The elderly may display their grief by shutting down, denying, or showing depression. They are already struggling with diminishing capabilities. By this stage in their life, they have lost so much: friends, a spouse, their career (often their identity), possibly a child, siblings and for sure their parents. For many seniors, health is a major loss. And for others, the loss of mental acuity is painfully difficult for them and their family members.
In addition, seniors are also looking down the barrel of their own mortality. Interacting with them by supportive listening as they grieve their losses is such an important gift to give them. Some seniors are at peace about this. They have a faith that gives them hope for a beautiful future. Supporting their hope brings encouragement to their days and nights.
In our little household, we all managed to get COVID-19. The real possibility of my mother’s death was a part of our experience. While her symptoms were mild, the potential for rapid decline existed. Bedtime seemed to be especially troublesome for her. Her body was so uncomfortable, and her mind was prone to fear. Two simple strategies helped us both. They might be useful for you and the staff who serve their residents.
- Listening to my mother express her fears and acknowledging the difficulty of feeling those feelings was a way to see her transition from panic to peace. Just knowing that one’s feelings are normal and were heard are two ways to dissipate the stress of loss and grief. My mother and I said important things to each other. You might be the one who hears these important phrases a senior resident would like to say to their family but are not able to do so for a variety of reasons. Responding with, “This is really difficult,” “I know this is hard,” and “Thank you for sharing,” are supportive comments that convey you acknowledge their vulnerability, loss, pain, fear, and grief. Is this not a time to bear another’s burdens?
- I found that talking about the future of an Earth made new with no physical pain or limitations helped my mom transition her thoughts from fear to peace. It was reassuring to hear her move from pain and fear of not living anymore to anticipating something so much better than she was experiencing. Even if someone is not a person of faith, they can still imagine a world free from pain and suffering. What might they like to do or see or where would they go? How would the world look different to them and who would they want to spend time with? By lifting the thoughts of fearful minds towards what is true, noble, pure, good, lovely, praiseworthy, and excellent, it opens the way for God’s peace to be with them. (Phil. 4:8,9)
As a grief educator and grief coach, I welcome any opportunity to support and educate others about healthy healing grief. Our new resources are Scripture based, clinically proven, accessed by many, and well received by nearly all who have had the opportunity to be trained in grief support skills or coached through their own loss. You are welcome to visit www.comfortfortheday.com to discover our online courses, cards, book, blogs, or potential training opportunities. We look forward to supporting you as you minister to residents, families, staff, and administration through these exceptionally difficult times.
© Karen Nicola 2021