December 22, 2020

Processing Grief: Tips to Manage Emotions this Season

Senior man looking at a photo album

This time of year is one to reflect on the past and look toward the future with anticipation and excitement. However, reflection can also spur and magnify feelings of grief and loss – especially for older adults who feel isolated or remember loved ones who have passed away. What’s more, the pandemic and its effects may increase feelings of grief, isolation and loneliness in older adults this year, which can impact both physical and mental health. Whether you are a family caregiver or an aging adult, it is important to understand ways to help cope with grief while still enjoying the season.

“The holiday season can be overwhelming. It takes an emotional toll on older adults and creates obstacles for caregivers, friends and family to navigate, especially if they’ve recently lost a loved one. In those cases, special occasions can be particularly difficult,” said Lakelyn Hogan, Ph.D., gerontologist and caregiver advocate at Home Instead. “It is crucial that family and friends step in to help seniors process their emotions. Whether it be lighting a candle in someone’s memory, going through old photo albums to share happy stories or dancing to their favorite song – there are thoughtful ways to remember those who are no longer here.” 

The holidays often bring back memories of a lost spouse, sibling or friend, and that can be especially painful for older adults. Hogan says friends, family and caregivers can help aging adults enjoy the time with those around them and offers these tips to help navigate feelings of grief and loneliness.

5 Tips for Processing Grief in Older Adults

  1. Acknowledge and adjust. It is perfectly acceptable to allow sadness in – particularly after losing someone special. Grief can be a complicated emotion. Encourage older adults to grieve in whatever way feels natural to them.
  2. Honor the memories. Set aside time to help older adults memorialize the person who has died. While some find comfort in keeping their usual holiday traditions, others may struggle. Whether it's carrying on a tradition previously done together or creating a new one in their memory, it is important to create a space for seniors to reminisce. By making the time, older adults can keep a piece of their loved one during this meaningful time of year.
  3. Allow them space to heal. Grief is not a linear process. It takes time to fully grasp the magnitude of losing someone. Allow your loved one time to process what they are feeling and space to begin healing. When they are ready to open up, be there to listen, provide comfort and support. If appropriate, encourage them to join a support group to talk to others who have also experienced loss.
  4. Create new goals. For many, the best way to honor a deceased loved one is to live life to the fullest. Set an actionable resolution for the new year to embrace all life has to offer and focus on the good. Whenever you experience joy, think of it as a gift sent from the person you love and embrace it as if you were embracing them once again.
  5. Enlist professional help. If an older adult has lost a loved one and is experiencing overwhelming and unmanageable grief, reach out to a mental health professional for coping strategies and resources. Also consider in-home care services. This would not only provide your loved one with help around the house, but someone to interact with and talk to regularly.

While the holidays are a time for joy and celebration, for many it can intensify feelings of loneliness, grief and sorrow. Check on the older adults in your life and remind them they are not alone this season.