Article Archive

March/April 2009

Grief’s Journey
By Rev. James W. Ellor, PhD, DMin, LCSW, ACSW, BCD, DCSW, CGP, CSW-G
Aging Well
Vol. 2 No. 2 P. 42

The task for older adults faced with grief lies in moving from the end of a relationship and its associated memories to the development of meaning that places the memories into a new context and offers the perspective that makes living with the loss easier. Memories of what is lost are clear, but the path to transform these memories to meanings is often the road less traveled. Movement from memory to meaning can be conceptualized, both as an emotional task, as well as a walk with personal faith. In this context, both provide threads that come together to weave a tapestry of meaning.

The Threads of Feelings and Emotions
The Journey: At an emotional level, the voyage is launched by the grief event or circumstances. In many ways, grief never really ends, but we consider it to be managed when the individual has found some resolution or meaning. There is an initial impact or time when emotional stress is at its highest. At this point, an elder often describes himself or herself as being numb. Stress is both a chemical and an emotional reaction that shuts down some portion of the intellect and allows one to not feel. This biological state quickly turns into an emotional state that can last for weeks. The presence of caring individuals eases the transition through this phase.

The next phase involves a readjustment to a functional state, with a return to the tasks of daily living. Many of the symptoms of confusion and stress found in the earlier stage may remain even amid the return to normal activities.

The third phase generally involves some type of sorting out. It’s in this phase that the individual is ready to reflect on the theodicy question: “Why do bad things happen to good people?” Finally, when the question has some resolution, it’s possible to find a way to live with the loss.

Near the end of the life cycle, one of the common patterns of aging is the increased number of losses and deaths experienced. Losing friends, family members, and even physical health are common occurrences. For older adults, the thought that death can and will happen to them is a midlife transition, often reflected in the midlife crisis. By the time older adults reach the age of 60, it is more common for the individual to be in touch with the potential for losses. By the time elders are aged 75 or older, an overwhelming number of losses may have occurred. Older adults must learn to cope with the unavoidable losses in their lives. Elders who have Alzheimer’s disease, when confronted with the death of a loved one, are often unable to process who has died or the abstract nature of losing another person. They can experience the anguish of grief but may not be able to focus on who and what has been lost.

Coping: Older adults develop patterns of coping with emotional assault. When individuals handle the stresses of life well, they become task oriented. In this case, the task is to emotionally handle whatever is happening. When elders don’t handle stressors well, they become defense oriented. They expend their energies to protect the emotional self rather than addressing the stressor, a characteristic of abnormal grief reactions.

The Threads of Faith
For some to understand the human grief process, there has to be something more beyond the human element. This prompts the discussion of theological elements. Faith provides a basis for grounding assumptions in human emotion. However, more importantly, it offers a form of hope that is unknown to individuals who don’t appreciate the role of a creator God.

Religious coping: Faith is often credited with getting people through a crisis. Faith offers support at every phase of grief. In the beginning, our rituals offer community support, emotional and spiritual comfort, and a positive activity to engage participants. Our ministries of presence are also important at these times. In the stages where an individual is ready to sort out the issues, religion offers a way of both asking the hard questions and considering the answers. Psychology has conceptualized coping as a way of handling grief both physically and emotionally. Religion promotes coping by supporting the individual through reframing, and at times, even denial, where there is a healthy need to postpone all of the pain until it can be adequately addressed.

Memory as transcendent relationship: In grief situations surrounding the death of a friend or loved one, the first level of response comes from projected reality. Death is highly projective. Older adults think, “That could be me,” or “That could be my son or daughter.”

The next response comes from memories of the person and our relationship with him or her. Memory serves as a format in which to explore the basis for our feelings.

Meaning as faith: As the stages of an older adult’s grief move toward resolution, the memories need to be placed into some type of context. This meaning is a reflection of faith as understood by the individual in his or her life. For humans, the process of living in grief is a reflection of the movement from memory to meaning. It involves movement from the safety of what has been, through the frightening waters of change, and into the resolution that meaning, based on faith, can provide. The supporting person’s role is to walk along with the person on the journey. As fellow travelers, we cannot walk it for them. Rather, we can help them carry the memories, sort them out, and be there to affirm them when they bring them together.

— Rev. James W. Ellor, PhD, DMin, LCSW, ACSW, BCD, DCSW, CGP, CSW-G, is editor of the Journal of Religion, Spirituality and Aging and director of the Center for Gerontological Studies in the School of Social Work at Baylor University in Waco, TX.