Loss is an inevitable experience that has to be faced as we grow older. It is usually unwelcomed, sometimes unexpected, and frequently demands that we make changes we would prefer not to make. There are many kinds of losses, each with a different trajectory and each with different consequences. Basically, though, there are three types of losses: loss of place, loss of person, and loss of purpose.
Loss of Place
As we age, loss of place and the consequences of moving have different impacts. For example, elders often experience grief and disconnection when adult children move away, especially if there are grandchildren. Similarly, there can be an experience of grief and disorientation when leaving a community you have spent your life in to move into a retirement community, an independent living community, or into long-term care. These emotional experiences are intensified if there is little or no choice involved. There can also be regret and shame, especially if the move turns out not be what was hoped for or expected.
Loss of “place” also occurs with changes in status. Going from working to retired is one example. My husband went through a profound period of grief after he retired. He had loved his work and all that went with it. His change in status from working to retired left him feeling that he no longer mattered. He addressed his loss by re-creating himself and finding work that challenged his mind while staying aligned with his values. I am not suggesting that you shouldn’t retire! This is just a head’s up that in changing “places”, you might notice you feel different.
Loss of Person
I don’t know that there is any way to prepare for loss of a parent, child, partner, spouse, pet or other loved one. Yet is it something we all will experience. Loss of person can happen at any age. My father died when I was 14. My neighbor’s mother died at age 105. Grief over these losses is frequently minimized in our culture. The pain is sometimes lessened with medications, but I have found it is better managed through grief support groups, connections with others, as well as tapping into ritual and faith or spiritual traditions. So often the ones left behind need to sort through unfinished emotional business, resentments, guilt or shame. This work (and it is WORK!) can be life changing.
Death will take us all eventually, but Alzheimer’s is a disease that takes the person before their body. This is especially hard on those who are connected with and provide care for that individual. It is one of the most challenging of diseases for many reasons, but I suspect it carries additional weight because we have little patience with its incessant demand that we continue to love a person who is lost to us. We feel the loss deeply, but the person with Alzheimer’s is disconnected from our loss and can no longer comfort us.
Loss of Purpose
Finally there is loss of purpose. This, like death, has no time constraints, but does happen more frequently to those of us who are aging. Loss of purpose can leave you feeling useless, hopeless, and invisible. It takes a physical and emotional toll. Let’s face it. We are prized for our abilities to do. When we no longer are producing, we become less valuable.
Purpose gives meaning to both the task and the individual doing the task. In cultures where people are valued for who they are, and not just what they do, we see less despair among the aging. Finding purpose in life after working may be challenging for some. For others, this “second bloom” provides depth and meaning that far exceeds attainments from earlier years.
Giving Voice to Loss
After my husband died I found great solace in reading poetry and listening to music. While it was beneficial and essential for me to attend a grief support group to share and work through my deep sense of loss, what was most healing and ultimately carried me through the years of grieving were the arts. Musicians who wrote haunting music in a minor key. Poets whose words cut through and entered my broken heart and soul like a laser. Artists whose compositions captured the moments of isolation, despair, pain, and desolation arising out of loss. Somehow these evocative, heart-centered pathways cut through the nagging incessant inner voice that said I would never find wholeness again and let me know I was not alone in my loss. They offered a pathway to connect to my pain and through that connection, re-connect with the world. And, that was enough.
Here are three artists whose works touched and healed me and helped me re-connect. The first is a poem titled “Trigger” by Carol Mikoda, a contemporary poet living in upstate New York. The second is a link to a recording of Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings, as performed by the Dover Quartet. The last is Michelangelo’s Pieta. Each of these artists, in their expression of their art, connected with me and helped me connect with my feelings. That is what helped heal me and the disconnection that arises from loss.
Trigger by Carol Mikoda
Gaze at the photo, into the calm face
next to yours, sunlit moment suspended
in strange substance of time. Forget for a moment.
Shock floods in, film unspools, zipping
down in snaky rings on the floor, never
to be recoiled; accident replays in your mind,
smoky wreckage spills at your feet. Nothing
to be done. Weep, curse, step out. Move on.
FIVE PILLARS OF AGING
Grief and depression may share some qualities, but they are very different in terms of how to best to address the symptoms and support the person who is experiencing distress due to a loss. What is most beneficial for both depression and grief is empathy. This means listening and not trying to fix or distract the person from their feelings. This is often difficult for friends and caring others who find their own distress triggered by the intensity of reaction by the person who is grieving or depression. Click here to listen to Brené Brown and her take on this.