The death of a beloved spouse – one who has been your mate for decades – is one of the hardest life events to grieve and overcome. Of all recognized stress-induced health issues, it ranks above divorce, separation, imprisonment and the passing of another loved family member, according to a recent Journal of Health and Social Behavior paper.
Yet when that stressful event has to be borne by someone who lives in a dementia fog, brought on by Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s Disease or the like, the grieving process can be elusive and abnormal. For sufferers with an advanced condition, the death is typically recognized one moment and forgotten the next, which prompts an unbroken “replay” cycle of repeated notification, followed by either grief or cognitive blankness.
Of course, whether the surviving spouse can absorb the news depends upon the individual’s type and stage of dementia. So where does this leave the family caregivers? How can one break through the mental wall of the disease to communicate the passing, and to secure a naturally unfolding grieving process?
As a family caregiver, you yourself are going through the grieving process. You and the rest of the family must do so while dealing with the highly emotional burdens of carrying out final arrangements such as going over the will and other legal documents, handling life insurance duties, and even arranging assisted living care for your surviving loved one — matters that may, sadly and frustratingly, lead to familial clashes and conflicts.
Setting such nettlesome problems aside, when it comes to your relationship with the loved one with dementia, there are effective and creative ways to help him or her cope with the loss of a spouse. Here are a few:
Six Strategies for Communicating the Death
- Work with the sufferer’s doctor and medical caregivers to understand the disease progression of your loved one. Doing so will help you both time and frame the approach of the death news communication more effectively.
- Have the surviving spouse reminisce about the deceased loved one. Exchange memories of the recently parted and look over old photos. This will allow the loved one, you and other family members to grieve together as a family, which lends to a greater healing process shared by all.
- Visit your loved one regularly during this sensitive time and maintain normal social routines as much as possible. The proximity of human care will aid him or her in staying grounded.
- Reassure the surviving spouse of the depth of your family’s love for him or her. Couple these reassurances with deeds, such as the giving of flowers, baked treats, or a day of pampering.
- Don’t shift the sufferer’s footing. While you might want your loved one to move closer to you or another member of the family, give the mourner time to adjust so he or she doesn’t have to contend with major life changes one on top of the other.
- Include the loved one in the mourning rituals of the recently deceased spouse. Whether he or she recognizes what the event means or not, it is simply ethical to give your loved one the opportunity to say his or her goodbyes. He or she will never have another chance to do so.
Post-Notification: How to Engage with the Dementia Sufferer
If your loved one is having problems with his or her verbalization of feelings, don’t undercut what could actually be a true understanding of the loss at an emotional level. Follow the person’s lead. If he or she isn’t focused or aware of the loss, don’t assume your loved one isn’t processing the death on an internal level. At the same time, give the person space. Don’t introduce a conversation about the deceased person, especially if he or she isn’t talking about it. Just respond to the conversation; don’t lead it.
If, on the other hand, the widow/er expresses emotion about the passing, validate the mourner’s feelings as much as you can. It will greatly help the individual process his or her grief.
It must be said: the task of communicating the death and having the dementia-struck widow/er assimilate the passing is a tremendously difficult one. Fortunately, you are not alone. You have family members and a professional hospice staff to help you carry out the challenging task. Simply hope for the best and understand that your sincere efforts under such circumstances are more than enough, by any standard. Nothing more can be asked of you.