Ageing and grief

G is for Grief

One of the hardest things for an older person to bear is the death of a friend or close relative, often preceded by a period of prolonged illness. Grief is an experience all people have in common, but for older people death has a particular heaviness, for the gaps in our relationships are now not so easy to fill; and we become more conscious of our own mortality.

‘Of all the functional mental disorders almost the only one whose cause is known, whose symptoms are stereotyped and whose outcome is usually predictable, is grief’, writes a sociologist who has researched bereavement. He goes on to suggest that grief is so serious an experience that it can be compared to a mental disorder, associated with all the discomfort and loss of function typical of such disorders; ‘a mental wound’, he says ‘which leaves scars’. There’s no ‘grin and bear it’ answer to such loss, only a gradual realignment of your life which can be as painful as the healing of a wound, and which indeed leaves ‘scars’.

Anyone can die at any time, but as you get older the inevitability of an end to life- other people’s and your own- becomes inescapable. And that may cause a sort of grief for yourself, and a feeling that you may not have accomplished much in your life. ‘I wonder’ someone said to me the other day ‘what it’s all been about’. I didn’t know what to say but afterwards I thought – it’s been about you: the wonderful times you have known, the people you have loved and who have loved you, the places you have seen, the experiences you have shared, the people you have supported, the ways in which your interests and skills have developed. Elderly people often say ‘I can’t get around anymore, but I have such lovely memories’. Being greedy, I think I want more than memories, precious though they are.

I want new experiences, compensating moments, new challenges – however daunting it may seem, these can be as open to older people as they are to the young.

Grieving honours the person who has died and is a way of celebrating a friendship. Grief needs perhaps to be accepted and received, its pain managed and its lessons learned. Once the numbness of shock has worn off, the pain which at first is acute, lessens. Gradually the attacks of sharp distress become less frequent, the despair eased, until at last the loss can be faced and incorporated into the rest of your life. Not grieving at all is unnatural; grieving for too long could be an indulgence. So, we carry the grief for as long as we need to, work through it and then with new perspectives, move on.