Whether it is the Al Green or the Bee Gees version of “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart?”, it is worth giving a listen before (or while you) read this post.
February is National Mend a Broken Heart Month. There are many reasons for broken hearts most of them involve loss – the end of a relationship, a death, being fired from a job, deterioration in health… Loss happens.
For some, especially older adults, there are additional issues with grief. Using the lyrics as a guide, here are a few reasons:
“I can think of younger days…”
Working with older adults, I have observed a variety of responses when they reflect on younger days. Some smile when remembering good memories. For other, painful memories surface. Grief may arise as they recall those who have passed. There are also those who become anxious when they can’t remember something.
Be prepared for a variety of responses when you encourage people to “think of younger days”.
Whether it is the mist of emotions or the mist of fading recall, memories can be difficult to recall. Smells, music and objects can help stimulate memories. In other words, don’t just talk about babies, have cloth diapers, baby powder, baby oil, lullabies, etc. to stimulate the conversation.
“No one said a word about the sorrow.”
This is a biggy for me. Sorrow and grief are normal emotions. It seems that after the initial event (or couple days) no one wants to talk about it. They want to go back to “normal” conversations and activities. There seems to be this push away from experiencing grief – “Get over it. They’re in a better place. Come on and be happy…”.
Sharing these emotions is important.
One of the big challenges is grief doesn’t have a timeline. You don’t just wake-up one day and grief is over. It is a process. Yet, when we remain in grief that doesn’t change or begins to negatively impact our lives or the lives of those around us, professional assistance is needed. (More on this later.)
One of my most powerful grief conversations occurred many years ago when I was working as an activity director in a skilled nursing facility. A resident with a dementia diagnosis had just been informed about the death of her spouse. Comprehending what had happened, she was appropriately tearful. She also didn’t want to be alone so she spent the afternoon with me in my office and in groups.
When we went to the first group (if memory serves it was to be a reading group) I shared with her permission what had happened and why this resident was tearful. This group of ladies of differing abilities and diagnosis immediately set to the task of supporting this woman in her fresh grief. They held hands, passed out kleenex,and shared memories of similar losses. While the group was not what was scheduled, it was what this resident needed as well as the other participants. For that half-hour you would not have known who had a dementia diagnosis and who didn’t. They were all appropriately on task. For the next month, I often observed several of them regularly checked in on the new widow making sure she had opportunities to laugh and to cry.
Which leads us back to the big question –
Does a broken heart mend or is it forever changed? Something has changed. Grief while being highly personal is a shared experience. Experiencing a range of emotions is normal.
Be ready to listen and to sit in silence. Sometimes we need to share stories. Sometimes we need to be quiet but we don’t wish to be alone. Follow the lead of the person grieving. Filling every waking moment with activity and conversation is less than wise.
Watch for signs that professional care is needed. These might include increased confusion, a constant focus on death, lack of self-care, difficulty sleeping. Let them know you are troubled by what you see and that you are willing to help them find appropriate assistance is appropriate.