Embracing a New Normal: Dealing with Grief
Change can be hard, especially as people age. When life as they know it and love is challenged and disrupted, it can be frustrating, confusing, and scary. Add to that a major health crisis or the loss of a loved one, and the result can be overwhelming.
There are eight common life-altering events that older adults and their families may experience. Each of these changes forces a “new normal” simply because the old normal cannot return.
- Death of a loved on
- Health issues
- Financial instability
- Realization of aging
- Shift in family dynamics
- Loss of social circle
While everyone’s situation is unique, there’s a common theme: a fear of the unknown. When the future looks dark and there’s no clear path, the natural reaction is to want to go back to what is familiar, comfortable, and safe. Unfortunately, there are times when even a remote resemblance of life as it was once known is impossible. Whether people like it or not, a new “normal” must emerge.
This harsh fact can be difficult for people to accept, but as with all of life’s challenges, it brings with it an opportunity to grow and become stronger than before. People can discover a new normal that brings them to a bright place–different, but beautiful just the same.
Taking One Step at a Time
Best known for his Serenity Prayer, American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr once wrote, “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” After a major life-changing event, how do people begin to fathom a new normal and move forward? How do they help themselves and their loved ones find happiness again?
Typically, people go through two emotions before they can accept and embrace a new normal–grief and guilt. The key to finding peace is for people to work through the grief process, either by themselves or with the help of a professional. Next, they must face the reality of the situation. Lastly, they must be willing to release their guilt. Regardless of the situation, it requires patience with all involved. The journey of accepting a new normal will happen gradually, one step at a time.
Understanding Grief and Guilt
In order to process what has happened and embrace a new normal, people must be mindful of the sign of grief and gulit. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross (2005), a Swiss American psychiatrist, theorized that there are five stages of grief:
It is important to understand that grief doesn’t only occur as a result of the loss of a loved one. Grief can also happen when people’s comfort levels are challenged, and they come to the end of what they consider to be normal. Sometimes feelings of guilt may occur when people feel they aren’t grieving appropriately. They may feel if they start to move forward, they are forgetting their past or settling for less. These both represent denial.
It must embracing these changes doesn’t indicate that their present situation is better than what they had. Coming to a place of accepting the old normal as part of their treasured past, and the present as a gift, can be the end result of the grieving process. Below are two common examples:
Death of a spouse or significant other. According to AARP (2011), about 40 percent of women and 13 percent of men who are sixty-give and older are widowed. The loss of one’s closest companion can cause feelings of loneliness, a loss of purpose, trouble sleeping, lack of appetite, difficulty concentrating and depression.
Those who are grieving will likely go through several phases of grief before accepting that a loved on has died. What was once normal is no longer, but the future can still be good. Grief is a natural part of accepting any life change, and how a person deals with it is the key to finding joy again.
Moving on and embracing the new normal means tackling the guilt. Signs of guilt may include, “If I move on, it will seem like I have forgotten…,” “It hasn’t been that long since I lost…,” or “If I had only done _____ maybe things would have been different.”
Health Issues According to the Centers for Disease Control (2015), the U.S. leads in chronic diseases. About half of all adults have one or more chronic health conditions. Eighty-six percent of the nation’s healthcare dollars go to treatment of chronic diseases, which are the leading causes of death and disability.
Many older adults face not just one but several of these chronic illnesses simultaneously. One in four adults have two or more chronic health conditions. For example, a person may have Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease and diabetes. Each chronic illness has it’s own separate demands and can drastically change someone’s social and economic normalcy, thus creating an undesirable new normal.
When faced with a serious health issue, people are often forced to restructure their daily lives. They become limited in the activities they can preform and may be restricted from eating certain foods. They may experience a loss of energy, which can change future plans and their roles in the family.
Signs of grief can be non-compliance with physicians orders or medications, a defeatist mindset, depression, lack of sleep, and more. Similar to the loss of a loved one, guilt will be a part of the process, and may include such thought as, “If I had taken better care of myself,” “If I’d gone to the doctor sooner,” or “I’m paying for the things I did in my youth.”
Moving Past Denial
Again, denial is part of the grieving process, but how do the remaining stages of grief–anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance–relate to embracing a new normal?
Once people move past denial and acknowledge that things will never be the same, anger often sets in. They become furious because they can’t grasp why this horrible situation has happened to them.
They often feel like they’re being forced down a path that will inevitably lead to a new normal they don’t want. At that moment, the grieving process begins, and fear and anger set in. This can be especially difficult if they’re used to caring for others. This sudden role reversal can make them feel like they’ve failed their loved ones. They’re angry because they can’t fix it.
It’s at this point that people often enter the bargaining stage in the hopes that it will restore some level of normalcy. Unfortunately, in many cases, what was once normal no longer exists. That’s when signs of depression become noticeable. It is during this stage that people truly realize their situations. According to Kubler-Ross theory on the grieving process, people become silent, stop socializing and spend much of the time crying. It is natural for them to feel sadness, regret, fear and uncertainty. They may disconnect from family and friends. despite well-intentioned efforts to cheer them up. A certain level of disconnect is encouraged because it is a necessary part of accepting the situation. However, it is important to be aware of signs that it’s something more serious.
Stress response syndrome, sometimes called adjustment disorder or situational depression, can occur when a person struggles to cope with a major life change. According to the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (2000), it is estimated that 5 to 21 percent of psychiatric patients are diagnosed as having stress response syndrome. Adult women are diagnosed twice as often as adult men.
The main symptoms include disturbance of conduct, mixed disturbance of emotions and conduct, depressed mood, anxiety, and mixed depression and anxiety. According to WebMD.com (2015), symptoms generally begin within three months of the event and rarely last longer than six months after the event or situation. Unlike depression, stress response syndrome can typically be resolved once adaptations have been made and acceptance begins.
Acceptance! The very thing people most strongly resist is the only thing that will allow them to move forward and embrace a new normal.
Learning to live, love, and be happy again often requires people to change their way of thinking. They have to look at the world differently with a courage they’ve never known until now.
They may discover new social circles, interests, or hobbies. They may reacquaint with old friends. Their new normal can be embraced as an opportunity to try new things–a fresh start. This simply means they have accepted the past and are willing to try to make the best of what is yet to come.
Making a dream list of five to ten things they want to accomplish or experience can help them discover hope and reinforce a “can do” attitude. Examples could be taking an art class, learning how to ballroom dance, joining a travel club, or writing a book. Dream lists help people to rediscover hope and happiness.
Additionally, people must be mindful of their own well-being. The National Institute on Aging (2015) offers a list of tips on mourning the loss of a loved one that should be considered in any life change. It reminds them to regularly connect with friends, join support groups, or seek professional help.
Professionals who work with older adults can help their clients find a support network and encourage them to make positive life changes. Resources could include:
- Grief counseling/support groups
- Spiritual guidance
- Professional caregiving
- Financial planning
- Estate planning
Embracing a new normal can be a painful process that requires time and patience. But it is often through these most difficult times that people discover their true strength and learn to look forward to a brighter future than they thought possible. The beauty of life shines through, and the journey brings them to a new place–different, but beautiful.
About the Author
Cheryl Hammons is the Senior Vice President of Home Helpers Franchise Services and Direct Link in Cincinnati, Ohio. The company provides non-medical and skilled in-home services as well as personal emergency systems across the U.S. and Canada. Contact her at email@example.com, 888-876-3144, ext. 146 or visit homehelpershomecare.com.
This article, by Cheryl Hammons, originally appeared in the CSA Journal.