Losing a Loved One During the Holidays Can Take a Toll

Dorian Martin Health Guide
  • I received an unwanted phone call yesterday while having lunch with Dad. No, it wasn’t a scam or a sales call. Instead, it was a call from an elderly gentleman who I had met during the past year. Trying to hold back tears, he told me that his wife of 60-plus years had passed away earlier that morning after a long battle with Alzheimer’s disease.

    My friend had told me the previous week that he along with the staff at the long-term care facility had seen the wife take a downhill turn recently. She began to stop eating and she also stopped responding to others. His description reminded me of my mom’s own final week when she seemed to sink into herself and quit responding to outside stimuli. It took a day or so, but I recognized the situation based on what I’d seen with other residents before they died, and alerted my brother to come down. He arrived late one night and we planned to go see Mom early the next morning, but she died before he could see her one again.

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    Whereas my mom died in late September, my friend’s wife died a week before Christmas, which was a holiday that she loved to celebrate. “She loved Christmas,” my friend told me earlier this year. “She loved to decorate and make it really special for the kids.” This year, her family and friends will mark this holiday season by gathering honor what made her special. Then slowly and surely, everyone will separate and they will go back to their respective homes and carry on with their lives.

    That leaves his friend who will be helping my friend deal with his loss. He currently lives alone in his home and has figured out a system for preparing food and maintaining his home. And fortunately, he has a supportive group of neighbors and many friends who will check in on him.

    That support will be important. What I learned from my own experiences is that mourning someone who died from Alzheimer’s differs somewhat from someone who dies suddenly. One key reason is that the memories and personality of the person that you knew goes slowly away over time as the dementia progressively attacks the various areas of the brain. Thus, you end up losing the person twice – the first time mentally, the second time physically. That timeframe from diagnosis to death can be short or may last for a decade.

    The other issue that I heard from others who had lost a loved one is that family members and friends show up to help you grieve during the first few days and weeks after the loved one dies. However, months later they have returned to their lives, but you’re overcome with grief. Therefore, it’s important to learn to take care of yourself, work through the grief and also to be willing to reach out  and ask for help from people long after the loved one has died.

    Already, I have begun to think about how to support my friend. Therefore, I turned to the National Widowers Organization to learn more.  Here are some of their thoughts:

    • Every person grieves differently. Some widowers think they should be able to manage everything and not let anyone see their sadness whereas others join a program for bereaved family members to learn how to deal with their grief.  “Older widowers may be more reluctant to accept their need for others, since they are more entrenched in old socialized roles that insist (on) maintain(ing) an image of independence,” cautioned Dr. Phyllis Silverman, a widely recognized expert on the topic of grieving and a member of the National Widowers’ Organization’s board of directors, in a column on the NWO website.
    • Find ways to establish new holiday traditions.  Gerald J. Schaefer points out that men often struggle with establishing new traditions, especially because they can become overwhelmed by the scope of what their spouse has previously done. However, he recommends creating new rites as a meaningful way to channel the pain and loss as well as to create a renewed purpose. He suggests brainstorming with family members and then developing some meaningful experiences that also aren’t overwhelming.

    Losing a loved one to Alzheimer’s disease is hard, but I can’t imagine how difficult it would be to lose the loved one during the holiday season.  Therefore, I’ve made a New Year’s resolution to make sure I stay in regular touch with my elderly friend in 2015. I hope you’ll reach out to people you know who experienced a loss in 2014.

  • Primary Sources for This Sharepost:

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    Schaefer, G. J. (ND). New holiday traditions for widowers. National Widowers’ Organization.

    Silverman, P. (ND). Is there really a gender difference in the grieving process? National Widowers’ Organization.

Published On: December 17, 2014