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When Grief becomes Complicated as a Senior

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When Grief becomes Complicated as a Senior


Going through the period of bereavement can be a stressful life event for anyone.  Each person must face at some point in time, and probably more than once, the painful loss of someone or something significant. There is no easy fix for working through the pain, but it can be a “double struggle” if you are a senior adult simply by nature of your stage in life.

The pain and sorrow of bereavement are supposed to be easier with the passage of time. Sometimes, however, time does not help. Experts call it “complicated grief.” This form of grief has just been acknowledged as debilitating, but it can be treated.


The Burden of Senior Grief

Bereavement is a common and natural response after experiencing a loss. For many older adults, however, experiencing grief is not exclusive to the loss of a significant someone through death. Grieving is for other multiple losses involving anyone or anything a person is deeply attached to and which can happen within a short span of time.

Grief as a senior can be a physical, social, intellectual and spiritual experience that may be considered tragic and difficult to accept. These include the passing on of a spouse, child, parent, or peers, the end of long-standing relationships, loss of sensory or functional abilities, loss of a pet companion, loss of an important role at home and community, loss of jobs, and more.

Unfortunately, the decline in cognitive functioning may interfere with aging adults’ mourning process. Although they can still experience grief and sadness, cognitive deficits may impair their bereavement reactions, which may be unpredictable and worsen their sensitive condition. Like other people, senior adults have the right to grieve and mourn, but going through a succession of losses may sometimes compel their families to shield them from reality. If the grief response of a senior family member is perceived to be weak, there is the risk of them being inadvertently left outside the cycle of grief within the unit.


Multiple Challenges of Complicated Grief in the Golden Years

Many adults in their golden years are able to overcome their grief, but for some, grief can be prolonged or complicated. The prevalence of complicated grief (CG) is higher to those between the ages of 75 and 84. At the age of 65, some may sense concerns of the future. Coming to terms with their own mortality can be trying, seeing their loved ones and friends aging and passing. Adding to this reality are other life stresses, such as physical ailments, empty nest syndrome, dwindling financial resources and retirement.

For some older adults, retirement can mean the loss of roles, social connections, financial independence and self-esteem. These and other issues that accompany aging can intensify grief. At this stage, the emotional support system that once existed may no longer be relied upon due to the multiple losses or adult children are busy leading their own lives. It is not surprising how bereavement can take an extreme toll and grief can become complicated on the last remaining years of senior adults.

Complicated grief reactions can be common in seniors, but notably, there are fewer resources for adjustment, yet there are more pressures for them to move on. The lack of support systems and facilities often result in higher mortality and increased health problems. Although there are glaring symptoms of poor health compliance, primary health providers may not recognize them as sign of complicated grief. It takes the assistance of a credible counselor to bring grief to a close.


Complicated Grief: Prevents the Pain from Healing

Losing someone or something beloved is one of the most distressing experiences all people have to face. Although the myriads of difficult feelings can be overwhelming, they gradually ease, resulting in it being possible to accept the loss and move forward. For older adults, however, the concentration of losses can cause them to grieve for a prolonged period of time and disable them from accepting the reality of their loss. This is known as complicated grief, a persistent complex bereavement disorder that keeps you from healing as you should.

Complicated grief is a syndrome that affects any griever of any age, but proportionately more will be at affected in high-risk groups such as senior adults. The condition is characterized by the following symptoms:


  • Intense yearning, sorrow, bitterness, and pain over the loss
  • Preoccupation on the loved one’s death and desire to die along
  • Extreme focus or avoidance of reminders
  • Frequent reveries
  • Social withdrawal and isolation
  • Loss of interest, meaning or purpose in life
  • Self-blame
  • Disbelief
  • Self-harm ideation


Although distinct from major depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, CG may be comorbid with each. It can be difficult to distinguish between grief and depression when they affect a senior. The challenges and changes that accompany aging can also stimulate anxiety. This opens the door for grief and depression to go hand in hand.

Sometimes complicated grief can manifest with delayed or absence of grief. Some symptoms may also be masked or complicated by age-related illnesses or disability. As a result, some older adults may not even be aware of their grief and may require assistance in validating their feelings and changes in behavior.

Grief is a highly personal experience that everyone processes in their own way and at their own pace. Grieving people, especially those in their later years, tend to bear their loss alone and are hesitant to ask for help, whether because of pride, shame or fear of being a burden. Family members, on the other hand, tend to dismiss the emotional and physical symptoms and attribute them sentiments related to aging. While family can be the difference in averting the distress from becoming more severe, it is more beneficial to have a proactive evaluation and diagnosis on the bereaved senior adult’s condition following a significant loss.


Moving Forward with a New Meaning in Life

It is said that grief is not a disease, but it can become one when it turns complicated and untreated. Senior adults who experienced a loss are at risk of developing complicated grief. As an under recognized health problem, complicated grief is minimized as a factor that can affect the emotional health and function of millions of seniors. Without receiving interventions during the period of bereavement, secondary consequences such as social isolation may lead to depression, chronic grief, and poorer physical and emotional health outcomes compared to younger people.

Given the growing population of older adults, whether cared for by their families or if residing in long-term assisted facilities, Carolina Counseling Services – North Fayetteville Office – Fayetteville, NC offers grief counseling services to seniors and their families through their independently contracted right fit professional that are on hand to provide an immediate support system that a grieving older adult may need, but otherwise lacks.

If you are a senior adult or someone you know has symptoms that characterize complicated grief, it may be beneficial to reach out to the one you can trust. Ultimately, a quality human interaction in grief counseling may restore that sense of purpose and help you find new meaning in your daily living even in the absence of your deceased loved one. Easing complicated grief and painful loss is one of the 9 good reasons to seek counseling now. Call CCS – North Fayetteville Office – Fayetteville, NC today.

Serving Areas: Carolina Counseling Services – Fayetteville, NC (North)

Counties: Cumberland, Bladen and Sampson Counties, NC

Areas: Fayetteville NC, Ft Bragg NC, Pope Field NC, Silver City NC, Linden NC, Bunnlevel NC, Erwin NC, Dundarrach NC, Rex NC,and Wade, NC

Zip Codes: 28311, 28395, 28390, 28356

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Carolina Counseling Services – North Fayetteville Office, Fayetteville, NC

422 McArthur Road, Suite 2
FayettevilleNC 28311

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PO BOX 9909
Fayetteville, NC 28311

Choose your Therapist

  • Becky Clark, MSW, LCSW

    Specializes in: (Ages 18+) Anxiety, Depression, Individuals, Couples, Geriatrics, Criminal Justice, Stress Management, Loss and Grief related to death, disability, divorce, deployment, “empty nest”, retirement and other major life transitions
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    Location: Fayetteville, NC