HELPING A FAMILY MEMBER WITH A LOSS

Question: My grandfather died 9 months ago and my grandmother is still really sad and not really doing things to make herself feel any better. They were married for 52 years and really loved each a lot so I know this is supposed to be really hard for her, but I wish she would start doing all the things she used to do. She is living with my husband and me right now. Is there anything I can do?

Answer: So let’s first try to figure out whether there is a “problem” here or if your grandmother is simply grieving a husband that she misses terribly. If I were seeing your grandmother in grief counselling, I would want to determine whether she has dipped into some level of depression. I would be looking for the following. Does she have a depressed mood (tearful, sad, empty) most of the day, nearly every day? Does she have markedly diminished pleasure in all or almost all activities nearly every day? Significant weight loss or weight gain (appetite changes)? Is she sleeping too much or not at all? Does she seemed significantly fatigued (you need to take into account her health prior to your grandfather’s death here)? Does she have diminished feelings of worth or excessive guilt? Does she seem very scattered and have difficulty concentrating? These are most of the symptoms that a person who is experiencing a Major Depressive Episode would be experiencing. If this fits your grandmother, then you should make sure she gets to her family doctor to be evaluated for possible medication and/or counselling.

If what I have written above doesn’t fit for your grandmother, then absent any other significant issues I am not aware of, I would say she is in a normal grief process. No one can determine how long it takes to move through the grieving process because it differs with each individual. Certainly I can imagine how difficult it would be to lose a husband after 52 years of a very loving marriage.

Here are some general ideas about what you can do (and not do) to help your grandmother. Let her know you want to hear stories about your grandfather, that you are fine with her expressing her sadness and that you are genuinely concerned about her. She will need to know that you can handle her sadness (don’t avoid her when she is sad), that you don’t expect or need her to feel better right now, and that you don’t expect her to “feel better by now.” I also think it is very important to not say things like, “you have to move on and enjoy your life – or – that she should really be grateful for a great life with him.” The basic idea is to follow the grieving person, not to lead them out of sadness.

When I read your question I wondered if you were actually going through an additional loss that you have not consciously recognized yet. That loss being the “loss” of the grandmother who was likely more active and present with you before your grandfather died. You may want her to move through the grieving process a bit faster because you miss your previous relationship with her. I think acknowledging this loss for yourself will also help you be more present with the grieving grandmother you have now.

So give your grandmother more time, let her talk about how she is feeling, and listen to all the stories she can tell about her late husband. Find some support for yourself as well so you can talk about how you are doing and how different this new life feels to you. Letting everyone in the family have all their feelings will help this process unfold and resolve in its own time.