When a senior loses their spouse, they likely feel overwhelmed by the emotional turmoil of being hit with grief and also having to carry out final arrangements. This is even more complicated if the surviving spouse has Alzheimer’s and struggles to comprehend the loss. Other family members can play a great role in easing this struggle by providing emotional support and understanding the needs that arise, including knowing the benefits that are available to your family as a veteran or loved one of a veteran.
Understanding the Grief Process
Anyone who loses a loved one will experience the five stages of grief: denial and isolation, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Everyone goes through these stages in a unique way and not always in the same order.
For someone with Alzheimer’s, the way the person copes with the death of their spouse may not look like the “typical” grief process. Neptune Society states that “Before you can help a person with Alzheimer’s cope with the loss of a loved one, it’s important to understand how the grieving process works and the various stages of grief individuals typically experience.” The first thing to keep in mind is that the person’s absence of understanding does not mean they lack emotion. How they react and cope with this emotion, however, may be unusual. They may seem agitated, or they may come up with other reasons to explain the person’s loss. Whatever the response may be, remember that they’re grieving in their own way and they need love and support from those closest to them.
Families of veterans may find this added complication of Alzheimer’s to be more common than in the general population. According to the Los Angeles Times, “a study of nearly 200,000 older military veterans has found that those with traumatic brain injuries are 60% more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia.” If you find your family in this position, it helps to know you aren’t alone, and there may be veterans groups where you can meet people who are also coping with loss and Alzheimer’s.
Coping With High Emotions and Final Arrangements
Besides supporting your grieving loved one who has Alzheimer’s in their emotional response, you can also support them in the practical aspects of making final arrangements. The emotional upheaval that comes from planning final arrangements is actually a reflection of the grief process. During the depression phase of grief, sadness and worry are common. This extends to worry over the arrangement details, such as transporting the remains, the will, and other legal documents. Worry over arrangements can be even more challenging for a grieving spouse who has Alzheimer’s, but family members can help them through this. AARP has a great checklist of what needs to be done. Something as simple as printing out a list to make sure everything is taken care of can significantly ease stress. (This checklist also includes links where you can find out what veteran benefits you may be able to access.)
Family members are a crucial part of a grieving spouse’s support system, but sometimes the worry and sadness that come along with grief also lead to conflict. When someone dies, their loved ones naturally feel a loss of control from not being able to change what has happened. Some family members may react to that feeling by trying to regain some control through making decisions about final arrangements. This can lead to power struggles at a time when our brains are thinking more emotionally than rationally. Understanding the grief process and that this conflict is a natural consequence of intense emotions is key to working through this struggle.
Family involvement after the loss of a loved one can add stress, but that support system is also crucial to coping in this difficult time. This is even truer for a grieving loved one who has Alzheimer’s. By understanding the grief process and how it plays into everyone’s response, including your loved one whose cognition may be limited, you can provide better support to everyone involved and help ease the pain.
Lydia is the co-creator of Alzheimerscaregiver.net, which provides tips and resources to help caregivers.