Finding a Path Through Grief and Loss

Suzy Hopkins
By Suzy Hopkins September 15, 2009 12:02

To help caregivers and others better understand loss in the elderly, Paula Burklin asks them to make a list:

First, write down the 10 most important things in your life. Those might include your spouse, children, independence, career, home, pets, a favorite hobby or being able to walk, read or drive. The list is as unique as you are.

Next, cross out five of the 10 items. But wait – you’re not done yet. As you age, the losses mount. Cross out three more.

No wonder the saying “Old age is no place for sissies” has such resonance with those who have lost their closest companions, comforts and capabilities.

“People who have experienced loss to that degree often may be angry and depressed,” says Burklin, who works with Catholic Charities’ Outreach and Engagement Program, helping seniors experiencing grief or depression, and their families and caregivers. “In order to understand, it helps for a moment just to walk in their shoes.”

Sharing the deep feelings surrounding grief and loss doesn’t come easily for most seniors, an issue both cultural and generational, says therapist Lynn Crook, who until retiring recently coordinated bereavement support groups for Hospice of the Sierra.

“Our older generation never even talked about menopause, much less the losses that aging brings,” Crook says.

Those losses may include the death of a husband or wife, or other relatives or close friends; loss of home and familiar surroundings when you downsize or move closer to adult children; and failing health or disability, which can mean an end to physical mobility, driving and other cornerstones of independent living.

Feelings of shock, denial, anger, guilt or depression are common reactions that may linger for months or even years, Crook says. And in the wake of a major loss, such as a loved one’s death, seniors in particular have a tendency to isolate themselves.

“It’s not a bad thing in itself if you’re dealing with feelings, working with the loss and the changes coming into your life,” says Crook. “But elders often pull in and shut down, and that’s not healthy. It’s healthier to be with other people who have experienced feelings and life-changing events – someone who can understand and empathize.”

That’s not always the folks you live with. Family members or friends weary of your despair may say (or think to themselves), “It’s been six months already – time to move on.” Often it’s difficult for friends and family to see their loved one hurting, and not know how to help them through the pain.

But grieving has its own pace, as unique as the individual, Crook says. She advises people to trust their intuition.

“You’ll know when the time is right for whatever you need to do,” Crook says. “You’ll just have a sense, whether it’s about when to clean the closet out, spread the ashes, let the kids take possessions they’ll eventually get, or move from the family home. Trust yourself to know yourself, and to know what you need.”

While it may be all-consuming at the outset, that intense emotional pain which seems to block all possibility of joy will ease over time.

“The best thing you can do to process a death is to talk about it,” advises Crook. “Eventually you can integrate it into your life and move on. You never get over it, but you can learn to deal with it and to live with it.”

Jan Moore, 66, knows what it’s like to emerge from the depths of grief – twice. Her husband of 23 years, Bill, died in 1998 after an 18-month battle with esophageal cancer. She thought she was done grieving, as together they prepared for his death as a sad but welcome end to the intense pain he suffered.

“But then when he was gone, I realized that all during that period before his death, I had had a partner. He and I had dealt with his dying together, then all of a sudden I was alone – and grieving all over again.”

She finally sought help from a hospice group in Yolo County, where she lived at the time. “Going to this group meant that I had to accept the fact that he was gone – it made it final. It was the first step for me toward moving forward.”

She remarried in 2001 and three years later, woke one Sunday morning to find her husband, Dan, dead from a massive heart attack.

“Mentally you understand it, but emotionally you don’t get it,” says Moore, now a trained volunteer who has led grief support groups for Hospice. “You feel like maybe they’re going to walk through the door, or that you’re just having a nightmare and you’re going to wake up. It’s a deep feeling – you don’t want to let go yet.”

A spouse’s death rips away old routines and daily structures. Special occasions can be especially difficult: anniversaries, holidays in the first year after death, children’s marriages, or the birth of grandchildren in the partner’s absence. “You have to work hard at creating a new life for yourself,” Moore says.

Many people think they will never be happy again, and the longer you’ve been together, particularly if the union was a happy one, the more time it may take, she cautions.

“You don’t get over it so much as you get beyond it,” says Moore. “With time and some work, it will get easier. You can’t escape the pain, but in time you begin to realize that it’s not going to be a permanent thing. There will come a time when you’ll be able to smile and say, He or she would have loved this – and feel good about it rather than feel sad that they’re not here.”

What to Say to Someone Who’s Grieving

Stay in touch and, above all, be willing to listen.
Those are the keys to showing support for a family member or friend who’s grieving, according to Lynn Crook and Paula Burklin, who work with seniors suffering from grief and loss.

“Be honest if you’re feeling uncomfortable about not knowing what to say, but also let them know you’re there for whatever they need,” Burklin advises. “Just be present, whether it’s through a phone call or a visit. Let them know that you’re there now and you’ll be there when they’re ready to talk.”

Skip the platitudes and focus on listening, Crook says.

“Just check in to ask how they are, take them to lunch, find little ways to keep contact,” she says. “It’s not that you have to be trained, or have the magic words to say. Just being there, being a warm presence for them, goes a long way.”

Try conversation openers: How are you today? How did the service go? Was that meeting (or special event or anniversary) hard for you?

“If they want to talk, they will once they know that they can,” Crook says. “But remember that they may not be ready to talk, or they may never talk about it. All you can do is open the door.”

Grief and Loss Support Services

Hospice of the Sierra

Eight-week group sessions with a fixed curriculum are held regularly, meeting once a week for 90 minutes; closed to new members after the first three sessions. Most of those attending are dealing with death of a spouse, but others have lost children, parents or siblings. One-on-one support also available. Available to both Tuolumne and Calaveras county residents; meetings are free and confidential. Tuolumne County, 536-5700. Calaveras County, 736-9181.

Dawn’s Light, Center for Children & Adults in Grief, 532-9001

Group and one-on-one grief support for children, teens and adults. Separate groups for children ages 5-8 and 9-12; adults who’ve lost a child to death; and those grieving suicide loss. Suicide prevention training and workshops also offered. Nansea Arquette, 532-9001;


Biblically based 13-week seminar and support group, non-denominational, open to anyone grieving the death of a loved one. Meets 6:30-8:30pm Thursdays at First Baptist Church of Sonora, 14425 Mono Way; new session to start in November. Cost is $20 for materials; scholarships available to those in need. Cheri Morton, 586-3940.

Tuolumne County Behavioral Health Department

The agency’s Senior Peer Counseling Program connects trained volunteers with people 55 or older coping with stress, depression or grief that follows loss of a loved one, health or mobility. Linda Happel, 533-5400;

Catholic Charities’ Older Adult Outreach and Engagement Program

Coordinator Paula Burklin, in partnership with county Behavioral Health, works with County seniors experiencing grief or depression, and their families and caregivers, linking them with support services. Paula Burklin, 532-7632;

Therapy Dogs of the Sierra, Chapter 186

This all-volunteer affiliate of Therapy Dogs International has 75 trained volunteers who take their therapy-certified dogs to care facilities, assisted-living and skilled-nursing centers and private homes in Tuolumne and Calaveras counties. Serves seniors grieving the death of a loved one, recovering from illness or surgery, or dealing with other loss, such as that of a beloved pet. Sherry or Stu Galka, 532-9217;


Created by Tuolumne County resident Dr. Kirsti Dyer in 1997, the site “combines elements of medicine, psychiatry, poetry, prose and images to provide resources and support to those who have experienced loss, be it acute or long-standing.” Those facing sleepless nights may find online grief support especially useful, the site notes, since it’s available at all hours.

© 2009, Friends and Neighbors Magazine

Suzy Hopkins
By Suzy Hopkins September 15, 2009 12:02
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