Loss and grief occur all the time yet we’re knocked sideways when they happen to us. While no one can lessen the blow of losing loved ones, can we set ourselves up to weather the process better?
Two interview-style studies carried out in the last decade give us insight into how older women grapple with various types of losses. One was done in Sydney and the other in Calgary, Canada.
The Sydney interviews were with 21 women, aged 63 to 82, who’d become widowed between two months and four years previously.
Three-quarters reported that some sort of health issue showed up shortly after their husband’s death. These included falls, infections (such as shingles) and other inflammatory conditions. One could easily trigger another, and several women needed a trip to hospital emergency departments.
Many were reluctant to seek emotional support. Some didn’t talk to their male GPs about their situation for fear of getting upset in front of him.
Others avoided counselling for the same reason. Rather than talking to a counsellor to help them cope, they felt they needed to be able to cope before they could front up to a counsellor.
Some of the women acknowledged that they ate poorly through this time, either because they didn’t feel up to cooking, didn’t have an appetite or didn’t like the idea of cooking for one. Several drank alcohol to help them sleep.
The Calgary study looked more broadly at resilience. Twenty-two women aged 55 to 73 were interviewed about the ways they’d dealt with change and adversity in their lives.
Unlike the Sydney group, they did seek help — mostly from friends and colleagues rather than professionals. This could have been because they were younger and less likely to have inherited a suck-it-up-and-get-on-with-it attitude.
For example, a 58-year-old who’d been through a divorce said: “There were times when I wasn’t strong and I was afraid. I just needed 10 minutes with someone on the phone. It was those little connections”.
We’re not all planners and this won’t strike a chord with everyone, but maybe there’s merit in considering how we might handle grief or hard times ahead of time, when we’re not in the midst of it. Here are a few ideas we can take from the two studies.
1. Get yourself a GP you trust and can speak freely to. It might be easier said than done in some locations but be as resourceful as you can.
2. Consider your networks and where you could seek help in the event of a major loss or distressing life event. Be willing to cast your net widely — aside from health practitioners, what about friends, family, neighbours, work colleagues, community members and organisations, counsellors and online support groups? Of course, friendship groups often change in response to loss and grief, and support can come from unexpected sources.
Asking for help can be confronting for those of us who were taught that it’s being a burden. But no one’s designed to be a fortress.
In fact, research published this month showed that people consistently underestimate how willing others are to lend a hand — contributing makes them feel good, and we need to remember that.
3. Know that grief can affect our health and that our capacity to cope will go downhill if we don’t take care of ourselves.
For example, make sure you have some basic stress management strategies. Simple things like getting out in nature, or taking a few slow, deep breaths.
Think about what you could do in difficult times to stay well-nourished or get reasonable sleep. What types of health support could you draw on? What’s worked or not worked in the past? Acupuncture? Massage? Walks in the park or on the beach?
4. A reminder that when others are going through these times we need to suspend judgement. They may not deal with things the way we would. But we can be there to listen or make a meal. As the Calgary woman said, it’s those little connections.
This isn’t exhaustive, but it’s a start. When we’re grieving we’re unlikely to be at our best for making decisions, so why not give it some thought ahead of time? Consider jotting down a few ideas, keeping it handy and updating it periodically.
At one level we can never be prepared for loss and grief. It doesn’t turn up on cue, look a particular way or last a particular length of time.
But it’s probably inevitable, so perhaps it pays to have some basics in place.
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