If you are a senior—or someone who loves one—you may have noticed that there are very few grief resources for seniors, from seniors, on the topic of losing a partner. But sometimes the best advice comes from someone who has been there. So we reached out to a number of seniors who’ve lost their beloved, and lived their own grief journeys. This is what they want others to know:
It doesn’t get better. It gets different.
A version of this statement was said by nearly everyone we interviewed. Carol noted that she loved her sunset walks with her husband. After he died, she couldn’t bear to go out at dusk. As time passed, she got a puppy for companionship and found peace walking to watch the sunset with her dear dog. Life likely will never be exactly the same as it was before. But you will find a new way forward, and it is being open to a different future that is the key to healing, when you are ready.
The triggers are not what you expect them to be.
Trish told us that she dreaded holidays after her husband died. While she wanted to continue to make occasions special for her children, she had trouble with how to handle the days herself. After getting through the first few years of holidays, graduations, her children’s weddings, and grandchildren’s births, she now feels that the big days are not the triggers. Trish believes that while you can prepare in advance for holiday gatherings, for example, it’s the sudden moments that are more challenging, such as unexpectedly hearing a special song come on the radio. Give yourself space and time to react if you find yourself overwhelmed or surprised by feelings of grief. They are to be expected.
Dwell on all the great times.
Ellen’s husband had always loved escaping the city and spending time in their small country cottage. After he died, she resisted going there without him. When she finally did, of course it was initially painful. But in fact she found the peace that the remote location offered was ever present (and more necessary than ever!). Rather than run from the memories, she found herself appreciating escape, embracing good memories, and feeling incredibly grateful. A place of former happiness may bring comfort and relief.
Look at photos to shift your perspective.
Thomas told us that he moved family photo albums from hidden shelves to a more prominent place on his coffee table. He shared his very personal strategy for when he’s really missing his beautiful wife: he looks at all the albums and lets himself escape back to better times. He told us afterwards he cannot help but feel uplifted by the fact that he had a chance to live all those wonderful moments. It doesn’t completely eliminate the pain of loss, but it helps to relieve it and to shift perspectives.
Actively seek great memories—they can help get you through the pain.
As mentioned above, multiple seniors suggested doing everything possible to hold memories close. Whether it’s creating photo albums, journaling or retelling stories to your children or family, keep the good times alive by creating tactile and sensory experiences.
Get rid of excessive “stuff,” but hold on to a few precious objects.
Sloan felt terrible about the idea of clearing out her husband’s clothing, multiple sets of golf clubs, and well-loved tchotchkes. Since she didn't have children to whom she could pass them, she was disturbed by the idea of never seeing these once-important items again. But when she was able to donate some of the items to charities that meant something to her and her husband, a sense of great relief came over her. While cleaning out is painful, it’s worth it. Too many physical reminders can create a heavy presence that may make it hard to move forward. That being said, keep anything that truly speaks to you, whether it’s a watch, a favorite sweater, or anything else. Objects transmit feelings and can help you feel closer to the one you've lost.
Maybe keep the house, at least for a while.
Trish told us that after becoming a widow, she rushed to sell her home; she believed that it was too much for her to take care of alone. She regrets that choice and suggested that seniors think twice before making any quick decisions if possible, especially selling the home you shared with your dear one.
Not everyone wants to hear about your sorrow all the time. And that’s OK.
Sloane was surprised to find that after a few weeks, her friends lost interest in hearing about her grief. She realized that if she wanted to be invited to weekly dinners, it was better to share her pain selectively and to look for sources of support instead of letting her sadness dominate every experience.
Take help from—and talk to—people who do care.
Sloane also found it helpful to be honest with those who wanted to hear her true feelings. By being honest, her emotions were validated and others helped her. For example, in one conversation it came out that she was having difficulty buying a new car because that wasn’t something she had done before. Her husband had always taken care of these types of things, so she felt overwhelmed and alone.
Then she discovered by surprise that one of her nephews had always accompanied her husband on his car buying trips, and this young man who loved cars kindly offered to go with Sloane to help her choose a new vehicle. Sloane was in a safe place with her nephew and she could both accept his offer of help, and talk about how much she missed her husband with someone who also missed him a lot.
Find friends who are going through something similar.
Numerous seniors commented that they found strength in empathetic friends in similar situations. It can be truly helpful to have friends with whom you can communicate, commiserate, celebrate and even grow. Trish told us that it helped to have close companions who laughed (or cried) at the awkward moments with her because they had “been there” rather than those who didn’t know how to react.
Different losses feel different.
Seniors noted that they were shocked by their pain. Many assumed after losing other loved ones they would be able to handle the loss of their partners. Instead, they struggled in a way they hadn’t anticipated. If your loss feels different, that’s OK.
Buy life insurance now.
Whether trying to make a joke in a difficult time by saying “at least something good comes from a terrible thing” or being more candid about tough financial decisions they were faced with after losing their partner, a majority of the seniors we spoke to suggested purchasing life insurance early just for peace of mind.
Commit to having your own conversations with family in advance.
After a complicated and emotionally challenging experience making funeral arrangements when her husband died, Trish vowed not to leave her children in the same difficult position after her own death. She wrote down everything she does and does not want for her funeral and burial and has had several conversations with her children to clarify her wishes and her values so they understand not only what she wants, but why her specific choices are important to her.
Update (or create) your will and other critical paperwork.
We heard numerous stories about family members struggling to find necessary paperwork after a death, and this type of bureaucracy can delay closure for months if not years. Unfortunately, too many families still find funeral wishes too late, or can’t locate a will to clarify the wishes of the person who has died. Take just a bit of time now and get prepared. It will bring you a lot of comfort.
The people you truly love are never gone.
Doug told us that he often sees his late wife and brother on the street or in restaurants. While he knows that they are not actually there, the few seconds of “seeing” them or experiencing their presence brings him immense comfort. Notice the presence of your loved one in nature, a joke they would’ve liked, or their favorite flavors.
Keep them alive through all your senses.
Joe finds himself ordering ambrosia whenever he sees it on a dessert menu, not because he actually likes it, but because his wife did. She would always force him to have a spoonful, hoping that he would come to love it as well. Now, he’s excited when he spots it on the menu, as the flavors bring back strong memories of happy shared meals over years and years.
You may find another sense to be stronger—you can wear their cologne or their sweater, hold books they used to love or drive their antique car. Listening to music can also be a powerful tool for activating memories and releasing emotions when you’re ready.
Celebrate their name.
If you’re lucky, have a grandchild named after your loved one so you can say it twenty times a day and smile.
This one is a personal tidbit added by our co-founder Elizabeth’s mother. Elizabeth named her daughter Brette, after her own late father. Brette's grandmother finds immense joy in seeing her husband’s name live on in the family. She loves not only saying it daily but also writing it on holiday cards again and feeling like a part of him is with them.
Grief may take a long time.
Multiple interviewees noted they were surprised by how long it took them to find a version of happiness again. Don’t expect to move through grief quickly. There are ebbs and flows and it may take a while to feel that you are strong again. This is normal.
Follow your own pace. If you feel you need to talk with a professional about your grief, here’s where to start.
While grief is different for everyone, we hope some of this advice brings peace to you as you move through your own journey. Our thoughts are with you. Let us know if there are other grief-related topics you’d like us to cover. Write to us at email@example.com or follow us on Instagram and Facebook.