Grieving the Death of an Older Adult

Types of Grief and Loss / Types of Grief and Loss : Eleanor Haley

Earlier this week, we published the article, Please stop minimizing the death of older adults.  It was admittedly a bit of a rant, and I ran out of room to discuss some of the finer points about why grieving the death of an older loved one can be so devastating.  So, if you haven't read that article, start there. For the rest of you, I'd like to waste no more time discussing eight reasons why the death of an older loved one can be difficult. 

Eight Reasons Why the Death of an Older Loved One is Difficult

1. People minimize your loss

People often minimize grief experienced after the death of an older loved one with comments and attitudes like:  "At least he lived a good long life."  "Don't be sad; you had 80 good years with her."  "It's the natural order of things." "It was her time." Please know that although a person may feel gratitude for the years of memories they had with their loved one, they may also feel a million other painful emotions. Also, death may be "natural" at the end of life, but for a great many people, it is not desirable. And even if someone finds peace and acceptance in the natural order of things, they may still miss their loved one like crazy. 

2. The person who died had always been there for you

Whether the person who died was a parent, grandparent, friend, or partner - there's a good chance you've known them for a long time. Whether they were a part of your day-to-day life, or you kept in touch with them from a distance, they were always there. Now, you have to learn to live without them for the first time in a long time.

3.  They were your mom or dad.

I don't care how old you are; it can be devastating to lose a parent. If they were your only parent, you might grapple with what it feels like to be an orphan. In addition to your grief, you may also worry about their grieving grandchildren. Or, if you still have another living parent, you may worry about their welfare now that they're alone.

4. They were your partner and your best friend.

Perhaps the person who died was your partner or spouse, and, for the first time in a long time, your facing life without them. For more on grieving the death of a spouse or significant other, head here.

5. You're the same age, dealing with many losses

It's logical to expect the number of losses one experiences to increase as they grow older. When a person experiences multiple losses in a certain period, they may experience cumulative grief.

6. Your loved one's physical or mental health may have diminished over time

It may be the case that as your loved one aged, they experienced upsetting physical or mental changes. It's hard to see someone you love struggle with things like the loss of vitality, independence, memory, cognitive ability, etc. While also juggling things like caregiving stress, grieving the loss of the person they used to be, and anticipatory grief for what's to come.

7. They may have been the glue that held everyone together

Older family members often fill the role of connecting people within the family (aunts, uncles, grandparents, etc.). They may host all the family gatherings, or they're the person who keeps in touch with everyone and always knows the latest.   Older family members also often serve as a connection between generations. They link past to present, share stories, and keep memories. So when they die, it can feel like a wealth of history and tradition has disappeared along with them. 

8. You just really love and miss them

The bottom line is, the person who died was your family member or friend. They were a unique individual who filled a spot in your life that no one can replace. It's irrelevant whether they were 25 or 85, they were a special person who you will always love - end of story.

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18 Comments on "Grieving the Death of an Older Adult"

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  1. Mike  September 2, 2023 at 1:24 pm Reply

    I am the 70-year-old son of a wonderful 98-year-old Mom who just passed away, the most unselfish person you would ever wish to meet. Mom thought about me and worried about me every day for the seventy years of my life, as I did about her. Now I won’t have anyone to think about me and worry about me every day, and that’s what hurts the most. Mom’s death was not sudden, and we had many opportunities to tell one another how much we loved one another. Losing a parent hurts just as much at 70 years old as it would at a younger age.

    • Robert S  January 31, 2024 at 7:59 pm Reply

      Yes, I am 64 and just lost my mother of 94 and it really hurts , she is the one person in the world that always supported my and loved me no matter what.
      I think it is difficult because she has been the one in my life for ever .
      I think people don’t understand and think I should be less upset because she was 94 and had a long life.

  2. Regina  June 21, 2023 at 2:43 pm Reply

    I just came across your article today and it speaks so powerfully to me that I had to comment. My mom died exactly a year and a half ago today, though it still feels like yesterday. She was 97. I think she could have lived longer if I had more support from a healthcare industry that doesn’t really care about older people. When she was relatively well and going for her annual checkups, everything was great. But it seemed that after a fall in August of 2020, it all started to go downhill. I needed to get care for her while I worked. It started out okay, but then in April the next year, she couldn’t walk anymore. A trip to the hospital didn’t help and even though they did tests, they said everything was normal and sent her home. She got home therapy but nothing got better. Spent a few more times in the hospital, but we never did know what was wrong with her and her doctor said ” well, she’s old”. The last time I brought her to the hospital, she never came home. She wasn’t ready to die but I knew she would when she left the house in that ambulance. It’s a year and a half and I still can’t reconcile her death and all the unnecessary suffering that led up to it. But it does help reading your articles because I know someone out there gets how I feel. Thank you

  3. Carolin Kreber  May 4, 2023 at 10:36 pm Reply

    I lost my mother to cancer five weeks ago. She was 84. She had learned three weeks earlier that her cancer had spread to her brain. She didn’t want to live any longer with that knowledge. Her greatest fear was to not be able to think clearly any more. She did think clearly-until the end. She was caring, intelligent, a ‘good mother’ and friend, who loved life, and just so very brave in her final days. She too said she was at peace with dying-but I think as so often she wanted to ‘protect me’ and my siblings. I miss her terribly and I’m glad to have found this site as I also find it difficult to talk about the loss. Thank you for the article.

  4. Cathy Irwin  February 25, 2023 at 5:44 pm Reply

    Thank you for this. I’m grieving the loss of my 89-year old mother and am navigating the grief journey, while realizing that people close to me don’t understand that the healing process will take a long time and never completely go away. Your article helped me understand that what I’m experiencing is normal.

  5. Fran  November 26, 2022 at 9:07 pm Reply

    I was relieved to find this article. I am a 71 year old who recently lost my mother who was 5 weeks shy of 100. I have been through other losses, some more traumatic, but this is different. And many are supportive, but it is me who has a hard time accepting that given our ages this loss is so difficult. Not that anyone should have to ever justify grief, but I feel like I do, even to myself. I was so involved with her care, for many years. And therefore every aspect of her existence. I grieved of many years just due to decline of her short term memory, but she was still amazing and smart up to the end. I am surrounded by many things that were in her home. It is hard though to feel justified because I keep hearing “you were so lucky to have her so long”, or “she had a good life”. Yes, and for 71 years she was always here, and for only a much smaller portion of my life she won’t be. It’s been almost 2 months, and I can’t yet comprehend it.

  6. Stephana  July 22, 2022 at 8:08 pm Reply

    I lost my mother yesterday..July 21 ..the day after my birthday. My mother was 2 months shy of her 95th birthday.For the past three years she lived in a very nice small and pretty nursing center.She was sociable and had a new best friend who lived in the room next to Mom.They were so cute together.I saw Mom a month ago and had a wonderful time with her.She seemed happy .Her memory was pretty bad but she could still care for herself and took pride in always looking nice(she had owned a dress shop when she was younger) Her appetite wasn’t as hardy as it once was but it wasn’t unusual for a woman with dementia ,to have those issues. We went to all the activities together with her friend, Tai Chi,Zumba, Virtual Reality class, and a wonderful Bar-B-Que.We had fun with the other clients.
    A month later Mom became very sick..She refused to eat for 1 week..An iv was given for fluids and meds ..After a series of tests ..she was diagnosed with pneumonia and diverticulosis that caused a very severe infection.
    She died yesterday at 10 am. I feel so many emotions..sadness, relief that Mom isn’t in pain, a surreal feeling is the only way to describe it. My father died at 47..Mom lived to be 94.She was a good Mom..friend to many,loved children, loved to laugh, was a great cook,and was so pretty..I wish I could have held your hand Mom..but I hope you heard me when they put the phone up to your ear so I could tell you how much I love you.Thank you Mommy for being our Mom for so many years of sharing…We will miss you.

  7. Lori  August 24, 2020 at 8:14 am Reply

    My 89 year old mother was healthy as a horse until last Thursday when she had severe abdominal pain and weakness. She died in 9 days. We had a very complicated relationship. She could be cruel, insensitive and make me feel very small. As a child I wanted to stay away from her. But then she had another side. She always had a fabulous meal on the table, kept our home clean and beautiful and she could also have A very good sense of humor. As I begin to grieve I swing wildly between the good and bad memories. One of her best qualities was that she listened to people and taught me to really listen to people also. I feel like most people just want to talk about themselves. Because of her unpredictability I learned not to rely on people emotionally, I turned inward and to God for strength. While that was painful I became a strong person in the end. I guess I’ve also learned that we are all good and bad and we can focus on the good or bad in each other and ourselves. I hope your grief lessens everyday and that there is something good to remember.

  8. Tadhg  March 27, 2020 at 11:17 am Reply

    I lost my elderly father two days before Christmas in 2015. I was his sole caretaker and it took a toll by my overeating and hitting the bottle excessively after he passed. I knew what I was doing was wrong but totally stopped on my own and feel much better. My mother passed at ninety in 2008 due to many complications and was surprised he lasted so long after her sailing on. I really don’t have any friends and my distant relatives are far away in another region of the country. They have a big network within an immediate area. The loneliness and chronic depression has been debilitating for me. I was actually going back to post on this venue after reading comments on a link pertaining to displaying departed one’s pictures or not in their homes. Many said they put away their pictures as they were too painful to look as they “trigger” someone’s grief and others have them on one table, mantel, etc. The numerous posts were comforting given the losses many endure and how they cope from family members in accidents, suicides, illnesses from all age ranges. For me, the reality of truly being alone scares me to the core. I don’t mean to come across as insensitive but it’s like you spend a life with someone and then the funeral home hands you your loved one in an urn. Of course, I knew his passing was imminent and realize so many are thrown into turmoil by a sudden loss. I think what I’m trying to convey is you’re haunted by the memories and now realize the silence of my own mother decades ago. You cannot escape no matter where you move to start anew thinking memories won’t follow. I really don’t want to live to be my parent’s age as the thought of it is madness to me. I have no children and worry about who’s going to take care of me if I live to be real elderly?! The loneliness is truly a slow killer. My own health issues the past two years threw my head into the wall about mortality and what’s totally unimportant. Cars, clothes, watches really don’t matter. The only thing anybody should be collecting are memories and hopefully they’re pleasant ones. We all grieve differently and there’s no time frame as to when it should be over. I was never religious as my families were of two different ones which was never really discussed because it was sensitive. The conflict actually set me free but I find I put their pictures out after putting them all away for quite a period after their passing. I placed them in a curio cabinet and I talk to them and pray and ask for comfort and protection and pray for the world and everyone less fortunate than me. As many say, be grateful for what you have instead of what you don’t.

    •  September 28, 2020 at 8:35 pm Reply

      Thank you for your honesty and generosity to explain all your emotions and reactions. I lost my elderly father 2 months ago. I am upset by people who ask how old he was and you can see in their eyes and body language, that it is not a big deal. Just move on. My mother said the longer you have a parent, the more difficult it is, because they have been a part of your life so long, and now you are older too and it is a challenge to recover and rebuild a life without them. You go through so many health issues with them and many decisions, often giving up years of your own life to caretake. My mother and recently my father were valued and loved and the silence and space they leave is heartbreaking. For me, it is very lonely, excruciating and yet everyone around is oblivious and unaware that that could even be possible. Many say, that he lived a good life. I say how would you know.? Did you ask him and get an answer from him? What did he tell you?

    • Abbie  May 7, 2021 at 7:03 am Reply

      Hi Tadhg,

      I came across this article today and saw your post. Please know that I am sending you warm and caring thoughts for your healing, strength and sense of peace.


    • Melissa  January 3, 2023 at 3:28 am Reply

      Tadhg… I hope that you are doing better at coping since time has gone by. My Daddy died July 27, 2022 and I feel like I will never get over it. I too was his caretaker for two years, and it was hard. I am srill trying to take care of probate with siblings dragging their feet for their own selfish reasons or just to be ugly. I haven’t taken care of my own medical issues for two years plus and my mental health is screaming at me right this second. I do have referrals for that now. I am struggling daily. And I do not have good emotional support daily. My daughter is my rock and so I greive for her being so far away. She surprised me by coming for Christmas. She said she needed a hug and knew I needed one too. Your story helped me to open up online so thank you for that. I hope life treats you kind. God bless you!!! P.s. I keep pictures of my Daddy with me wherever I go.

  9. Elise  March 25, 2020 at 7:13 pm Reply

    I lost my mom in February 2020. I feel so alone. I have two sisters who seem unaffected. My younger sister made herself busy with her twin boys that are 20 years old and my older sister was busy with herself. My older sister was my fathers favorite and is incredibly selfish. I had my mother living with me for a year while working full time and trying to take care of her with very little help from my sisters even though my older sister lives within walking distance from my home. My mom was starting to fall at home and I couldn’t pick her up so the last 6 months were spent between the hospital and the nursing home. I am trying to maintain my job by cutting back my hours but it is not enough. I am overwhelmed by the COVID-19 crisis due to working in the hospital as a Respiratory Therapist. I don’t know why I’m writing this….I happened to land on this website and just started reading. Currently, I am not communicating with my sisters. I am angry with the way that my older sister treated my mother and both sisters have not n
    Been there for me or for my mom. Right now, I have made the choice to distance from them for my own self preservation.

    • Diana  January 7, 2021 at 10:43 am Reply

      Elise – I can relate. My mom was our only parent. I am the youngest of 3 girls. The oldest didn’t visit but would send her money. The middle daughter never wanted to see her while she was here. Both so selfish. I can’t imagine how it feels to live with that now. I know my mom wasn’t perfect, none of us are. She had a drinking problem for all but the last 4 years of her life. Family gave up on her and distanced themselves. I always felt compassion for her. I am the one that watched over my mom and finally, in 2015 convinced her to move to TX to be nearby. It was like old times. We lunched, we shopped, she stayed over on the weekends. Those 4 years were a lot of fun for both of us. I’m so glad my husband got to know her. Then May 1, 2019 she had a massive stroke. She lived about 30 days. I seriously thought she was getting better! I visited her every day in ICU and then rehab. It was so shocking to lose her. It’s been 19 months and although doing better, feel the loss of her everyday. It’s such a different world without her here. Feels like sadness is just a few thoughts away. Trying to do better. I know she wouldn’t want me to live with this hurt on my heart. We just have to hang in there and keep our chin up. My mom’s name was Emma, she was like no other, and I loved her so, so much.

  10. Allen McGill  March 24, 2020 at 2:58 pm Reply

    I lost my partner of 62 years Jan. 7th, ’20 at age 90 – 63 years – a pretty good run.
    I spent the final 2 1/2 years with him every day from 9am-3pm in a nursing home.
    “Too much time,” others kept telling me. Maybe, but I don’t regret a minute of it.
    It was my choice. He needed me, and I didn’t want not to be there for him.

  11. Susan  March 23, 2020 at 8:10 pm Reply

    Oh my gosh…this article is me, my grief (70f 8, just not#5)! My mom died 2 years ago at 92, I cared for her for many years, she lived with me for over 20. Health declined from many issues, all serious. She kept trying, always. Combo of Parkinsonism and heart failure finally wore her out. Everyone loved my Mom, always including all the staff in the hospital during each of her multiple visits. I was her best friend, caregiver, protector in every sense of the word. After an emergency surgery during the last weeks of life, she told me “never to give up on her” I said I would not and meant it. And I lived up to it – with her al through the final days She did not die alone. I love her so much even now and I miss her. It hurts still. I have experienced the points outlined in this article from all directions, even my own sibling – who has easily moved on with his life.

  12. Marla  March 23, 2020 at 12:28 pm Reply

    Great article! It seems that minimizing any loss, while common in our death-phobic society, is not okay.

  13. Linda  March 20, 2020 at 3:43 pm Reply

    Thank you for this article. I lost my mom in 2015. She was 87 and though she was at peace with dying, I still miss her. I think about her so much.


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