How To Cope With Grief

A- A+

The loss of a spouse of loved one can have a devastating effect on an elder’s state of mind. We speak to experts and those who have gone through loss to find how you can cope with grief.

Untitled-design-3-200x300When Suchitra Karnik’s husband passed away at the age of 68, she felt her life had suddenly come to a halt. Karnik, a former lecturer in a Mumbai college, had retired recently and she and her husband had planned what they would do over the next two years – travel, volunteer, repair their house – when a massive heart attack took his life.

“I felt unable to do anything. My son flew down from US and handled everything and my daughter kept visiting from Delhi until everything was sorted out. Without them, I would have gone too,” muses Karnik, who found it tough to cope with grief and who still cannot control the catch in her throat after two years. What worried Karnik’s children was the change in their outgoing and lively mother. Even months after their father passed, she had stopped meeting people and doing the things she usually loved, like going for a walk or gardening. Her daughter Tanuja was worried. “We felt she was just giving up and decided to move her to Delhi to live with me for a while. Once there, I gradually cajoled her to do things she enjoyed, got her involved in the children’s activities and when we felt the need, even forced her to see a counsellor. The change was gradual and slow but after two years, we feel we are getting our mother back. She still stays with me but has made friends here and recently joined a ladies kitty group. She also travels to Mumbai often to meet her sister and keep a check on her house which has been rented out.”

Bereavement of a spouse can leave a huge impact at any stage, especially at a later stage in life, when spouses are often dependent upon each other, having spent so many years together. In fact, research done by the University of Birmingham, UK, has found that bereavement can impact the immune systems of older people. According to the study, a key element of the immune system that protect the body against infections is weakened when someone is grieving and the impact is greater in people over 65 years. 

Why Grief Needs Help

Then again, we don’t need research to tell us that grief can be all consuming, like in the case of Karnik. “You can be overwhelmed with emotions, feel very angry about what has happened and often let go of yourself in the first weeks,” says Dr Soumya Hegde, consultant geriatric psychiatrist, Nightingales Centre for Ageing & Alzheimer’s, Bangalore. She advises that it is healthy to let the person cry and give them time to realise what has happened. “It is extremely normal to go through emotions that range from being upset at the person not being able to complete their responsibilities and questioning why this has happened in the first few weeks,” she says, adding, “Sometimes, it may even take up to 6 months for the bereavement to start settling and that too is very normal.”

Tasneem Sheikh of Pune lost her husband after an illness that lasted almost four years. During this time, she slowly accepted the fact that he was not going to recover. “I thought I was prepared, which I was in terms of paperwork, legal things like power of attorney, etc. But the sadness never goes away,” she says, adding that even now, the sight of something her late husband loved can move her. “The sadness is a part of you but you cannot let it rule you,” is what Sheikh lives by and advises others too.

Get Help with Grief

Everyone grieves in their own way and it is hard to put a timeframe to how long the process of grieving would take. However, as Dr Hegde says, families do need to keep an eye out for some reg flags. In some cases, the grief after the loss of a spouse or dear one can be so overwhelming that the person is unable to emerge from it. “E.g., beyond six months, if a person has not overcome the grief and is not able to think of anything else beyond what they have lost, that’s when families should worry as it may become a pathological issue.”

Some of the warning signs could be if even after some months, the person is not getting on with their usual routine, hygiene needs or not being able to sleep well. “That’s when the family should approach a bereavement counsellor or psychiatrist to help their parent or relative get back on track,” Dr Hegde adds. The need for help can take many forms. She cites an instance where an elderly gentleman felt so guilty about not listening to his late wife that after she passed away that the guilt reached the point of needing help. 

Find a Support System

Dr Hegde mentions the “culture of support” in Indian societies, which can also be therapeutic for the bereaved person. Having family around always helps.

When Madhu Mehra’s husband passed away after a brief but unexpected illness, her two daughters rallied around their mother. While her younger daughter and her husband shifted base to their mother’s home, her elder daughter took a break from her job in US to support her mother through the crisis. In some cases, friends can become family. When Delhi based Surinder Singh lost his wife to cancer, his son, who had just started a new job and was constantly travelling, wasn’t as much a support as his family friends were. “After all the rituals and ceremonies were over, my son had to leave and I was alone at home, three of my friends and their wives made sure I never ate dinner alone. They would either invite me over to eat with them by rotation for many days, until I got used to the emptiness at home and found a 24 hour househelp,” says Singh, adding that his son is grateful for this too.

Finding a support system can be a huge help in alleviating the loneliness many elders feel after the loss of a spouse. It could be moving in with your children if circumstances are favourable towards it or connecting with your circle of friends. In some cases, this may not be a long lasting solution. Singh employed a house help not just to help him with the daily chores but also because he did not want to return to an empty home. 

Sheikh has decided to move into a retirement home facility as her children live in other cities and she feels the need for company of others in her age group.

Ways to Cope

Madhu Mehra lost both her husband and mother in law soon after one another. She had recently retired and most of her time had been spent in being a caregiver during their illness.

“There was suddenly a huge vacuum in my life and I went back to my old love knitting. I slowly started taking orders and getting in touch with people,” says Mehra, who runs a successful home business called She Who Knits. She adds that dealing with the paperwork after her husband’s death also took her mind off things. “I also went and spent three months in US with my other daughter, I just wanted to get away.” Even in US, Mehra kept her mind occupied by knitting, posting on her Facebook page and replying to messages from customers and it helped her overcome the grieving process. As she says, “You can never stop missing the person you have spent 40 years with but you can stop being and looking sad.”

Like it did with Mehra, a change of location, if available, may help. Staying connected socially, like she did, would also help to keep your mind away from your loss.

“How somebody copes depends on how mentally prepared they are,” says Dr Hegde. “In cases of chronic or neuro conditions, where the family is actually watching the person die slowly, they feel it is best for the person to go. When death comes out of the blue, it may get difficult to cope.” One’s attitude to life too matters a lot. Karnik admits she went into a “dark area for almost a year” and says that despite her reluctance to go to a counsellor, she listened to her daughter as “my state was affecting her life too.” Today she is glad she went and received help, even if she did it for her “children’s sake.”

Keep your outlook positive and stay brave is how Madhu Mehra puts it. “If you keep crying, you will only make others miserable.” Her advice? Take charge of your life and do something to keep yourself occupied. So if you have a parent or elderly relative who has been bereaved recently; if you are grieving for a loved one yourself, find something that would keep you occupied, It could be a hobby or a vocation you wish to pursue. Give it a go. It may help you value life. Because life, as they say, has to go on.

* Some names were changed to protect identities


Dr Hegde lists down few things families could do to help a bereaved person overcome their process of grief:

* Do not leave the person alone as they may lack the initiative to do things on their own or even take care of themselves. If possible, stay with or around the person.

* Structure their day for them if needed as they may have little inclination to do so. Involve them in outings little by little.

* Let relatives visit but depending upon the situation the person is in, warn them not to touch or dwell upon the topic. While it may help to talk in some cases, in others it may lead to dwelling too much upon the loss.

* Ask the bereaved person to get some physical exercise like walking regularly or doing Yoga.

* Make sure they are getting enough sleep.

* Grief needs to be shared and expressed. Help the bereaved person go through and sort out the cupboard or other things used by their lost loved one.

* Relive the good moments.

* Encourage the person to participate in a group activity like either a senior citizens group or a hobby class.

* Keep an eye out on their health as in the middle of everything, they may have forgotten to take care of themselves.  

Dr Hegde may be contacted at

About Author

Reshmi Chakraborty

Reshmi is the co-founder of Silver Talkies. She loves books, travel and photography.