Please Stop Minimizing the Death of Older Adults

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

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As I write this article, our country is preparing to shut down thanks to the virus-that-shall-not-be-named. Last week my phone was abuzz with notifications and emails canceling sports seasons, lessons, and other events. Starting today, our schools have closed for at least two weeks. The powers that be want to minimize the number of people who get caught in the viruses' web at once. I pray they're successful.  

As social distancing sets in, there's an undercurrent of conversation happening in group chats, direct messages, and on social media. People wonder whether implemented measures are underreaction, overreaction, or just right. With so much unknown, I'm not sure anyone knows the answer - but there sure are a lot of opinions. 

One particular opinion, that I've heard several times now, drives me especially crazy. It's an attempt to downplay the significance of the virus by saying, "...only older people die from it." 

I don't know why people feel so free to say this, perhaps because I'm in middle age they think I'll find it reassuring, but I don't. I love quite a few people in their 60s, 70s, and 80s, and it would be devastating to lose any of them. What this statement ultimately implies, whether intended or not, is that we should worry less about the virus because it impacts old and not young. 

The minimization of the death of older adults is not surprising. According to WHO's Global Campaign to Combat Ageism, ageism is both socially normalized and not widely countered. So, in other words, we're so used to the devaluing of older age groups that we hardly see it, let alone cry foul when it happens. These biases extend to how we view the death of older adults and the grief of those who love them. 

Though the current situation has me unusually heated, the truth is I've been meaning to write this post for a long time. The minimization of death and grief related to older people has been commonplace for as long as I know. Just ask anyone who's received "sympathies" 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."

Statements like these are often a misguided attempt to provide comfort to the person who's grieving. But in reality, they can be quite minimizing. If you reread them - don't they all seem like they could be followed with "...and so you shouldn't be sad."  

When supporting a grieving person, it's never advisable to try and point out a silver lining. Nor should you ever explain to a grieving person why they should feel any less devastated than they do. Someone they love just died, and they are entitled to all their pain.

Disenfranchised Loss and the Death of an Elderly Loved One:

If society devalues a person's worth in life, it follows that it would also belittle their death and the inevitable grief of those who survive them. Even though that person who's 65, 70, or 80 might have been someone's parent, grandparent, spouse or partner, best friend, aunt, uncle, caregiver, teacher, religious leader, community member, boss, or employee. And even though the death may be quite earth-shattering to all who knew them, the older a person gets, the more likely others in society are to minimize the impact of their death.

These are the makings of a disenfranchised loss.

Disenfranchised loss occurs when a person's family, friends, community, or social groups minimize or invalidate their loss. When this happens, the bereaved often feel like they can't grieve their loved one to an extent that feels natural. Further, when other people mandate how a person should be grieving, the bereaved person may (1) internalize these beliefs and feel wrong or embarrassed when their grief looks different than it's "supposed" to and (2) feel like they can't talk about their grief or seek support. 

Know that Your Grief is Valid and Likely Very Normal:

It's normal to feel devastated, and it's normal to struggle with painful emotions after the death of an elderly loved one. There may be factors unique to the death of an older loved one that sometimes brings comfort. For example, you may have previous experience with grief and loss, so you know what to expect, where to find support, and the coping tools that work for you. Perhaps you knew the person was at peace with dying. Or maybe you find comfort in the many memories you shared. 

On the other hand, there are plenty of reasons why the death of older adults is extremely tough. We get into this a lot more deeply in our post on coping with the death of older adults. So make sure to check that out if you haven't already.

If you are grieving the death of a loved one, regardless of age or relationship, know that your feelings are valid, and your grief deserves to be acknowledged, supported, and fully processed. Just as important, know that your loved one, no matter how or when they died, is deserving of being fully mourned, honored, and remembered. Grieving, honoring, and remembering means different things to different people. Whatever it means to you - feel free to do it. 

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24 Comments on "Please Stop Minimizing the Death of Older Adults"

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  1. N Day  July 9, 2020 at 7:44 am Reply

    I lost my mom, at 90 years old, and my dad died 7 months later, at 91. When anyone makes a statement about “oh well, they lived a good long life”, I simply explain my feelings this way:
    The longer you have them, the harder it is to lose them. My parents were both mentally active, still doing cryptograms, crossword puzzles, and using the internet. Since I’m in my 50’s, I have had them through every stage and event of my life, it’s hard to imagine what life will be like without them for my next major life event. I think of friends who lost their moms when we were in high school, and I think of how different their lives have been than mine. Your life is never the same once your mom and dad are gone. However, I feel that my memory of them hasn’t diminished or faded AT ALL in the 7 years that they’ve been gone. Their faces and voices are completely alive in my brain, and fortunately for me, in many happy dreams at night!!

  2. Vicki Rademacher  April 12, 2020 at 12:00 pm Reply

    Loss is loss & it is devastating. I, thankfully, have not lost a child, though I have had many losses. When one dies younger we mourn all they will miss or not have a chance to experience. When one is older we mourn they are no longer w/us when they have been, for many of us, all our life. My last grandparent to die was my 102 yr. old Grandma. I had not ever known life w/o her. She died a month before my Mom in 2017. I am an ‘orphan’ now. Both my parents are gone & my sister, my only sibling, is gone. ALL life is precious – old & young. Perhaps we should focus on that instead of the age of the person lost. Losing a loved one shatters the heart. We pick up the broken pieces & though they fit together differently now, we go on as best as we can one day at a time.

  3. Julie  April 3, 2020 at 11:59 pm Reply

    Yes to everything you said. Loss is loss – no matter the age.

  4. Francesca Nelson  March 28, 2020 at 6:27 pm Reply

    My mother died at 49, my son died at 23. So yes, it is hard to see someone dying at 86 as a tragedy. Sad yes, tragedy no. We all die. Even if you don’t want to think about that, it is true. People’s life expectancy has risen, but everyone dies some time. If you’re lucky it’s at 86. Celebrate a long life well lived. Please. You don’t know how lucky you are.

  5. Janice Tehie  March 25, 2020 at 3:36 pm Reply

    My father died in 2013 at age 96 in a VA hospice in Coatesville PA. Because of his age, he had outlived everyone a d so very few people came to the funeral because they weren’t around any longer. I asked the minister for help in planning the funeral and she gave me a copy of the usual schedule they used and told me to pick the reading and so on that I wanted. The choir director and organist, a good friend of mine, was more helpful than she was. She just dismissed the whole thing and kept on saying. “Well, he had a good life and he was 96” It was like he didn’t matter. My dad was a very good man who ry cared about others. His age was irrelevant.

  6. Jeannie Newman  March 24, 2020 at 5:04 pm Reply

    We were blessed to have five generations in our family. When someone dies in their 90’s or even older, that means we have them as part of our lives for many years. Losing them is like losing a huge part of ourselves, and, assuming that they were mentally alert and physically healthy, they taught us much while they were here. I am one of the Silent Generation—the one before the Baby Boomers. I want my six great grandchildren to know me, and to be a delight to me, and I plan to know & hug & love their children, too, if it’s within my power. Right now we’re down to only four generations. I clearly remember the influence my great grandparents had on my life. So much wisdom is lost to us when our elders pass.

  7. Carol  March 24, 2020 at 2:07 pm Reply

    Can you imagine people’s reactions if it only affected the children and we said things like, “Well, at least she wasn’t around long enough to REALLY get overly attached,” or “At least he was young enough that he didn’t suffer the ways of the world yet.”

    All people are precious and if we start minimizing any group, we start a very slippery slope.

  8. Vicki  March 24, 2020 at 1:08 pm Reply

    This came two days after my fiancé’s kids, who will be my stepchildren, lost both their grandmother and grandfather to Covid19 in Italy.
    His 8-year-old daughter is inconsolable.
    They can’t get into the country to attend a funeral and the gov’t hasn’t released the bodies yet, anyway.
    On the day their grandparents died, over 3,400 people also died bc of the virus.

  9. Larry Mahannah  March 24, 2020 at 10:48 am Reply

    Source, please, for that perfect drawing.

    • Eleanor Haley  March 29, 2020 at 4:43 pm Reply

      Hey Larry,

      This drawing is ours! We specialize in stick figures around here 🙂

  10. James Dunlop  March 24, 2020 at 4:26 am Reply

    it NEVER makes it easier to say they lived a good life, and a long one.
    It is not the person being laid to rest that the words are for.
    it is for the younger to justify what they say….. and really mean “thank god it wasn’t me”
    EVERY loss is a loss to someone.

  11. Trypheyna  March 23, 2020 at 10:31 pm Reply

    We are ALL as unique as our fingerprints. There is no foot too small that it cannot leave an imprint on this world. The length of time a Soul spends in Life has no bearing on their value or the pain of loss for other’s when they leave. All of us are Unique and of exquisite value.

  12. Elaine Troth  March 23, 2020 at 4:38 pm Reply

    Having a current s**t storm of losses I have heard, “that happens at your age.” How does that help? It just makes me feel guilty. I made, and wear every day the number 19825. ….. the days I was married. “That is what happens at your age.” Is so unkind! To read the, “i grieve the loss of young people more” proves the need for the article.. THANK YOU,

  13. Lorna Ellis  March 23, 2020 at 3:37 pm Reply

    Garyb. Has saying any of that, denying others their grief, made your own grief feel any less to you? Think about it. I’m sorry for your loss but that doesn’t give you any right to minimise the grief of others or to set your own value on their loved ones lives. I feel sad for you that you don’t care if your comments upset others. Your grief doesn’t give you a free pass I’m afraid.

    • GaryB  March 23, 2020 at 4:50 pm Reply

      No misread or misunderstood but nowhere did I “minimize or deny ” anyone their grief.
      Its about put it in context when compared to others.
      First how are “they had a good life – long run” insulting or not heartfelt?
      It does not make my grief any worse and surely any better but it does enable myself to tell anyone for the rest of my life the “she/had a good long life-run”.
      I said that less than a year later at my brother in laws Dads funeral -he was 92. He and his wife 70 years married.
      I just attended an inlaws funeral and she was 82 and all I did was compliment the life she had and long run with her husband who had died 3 years ago.
      They “celebrated” her life with pictures of so many events and anniversaries.
      To say “she had a good life” is uncaring?
      Sorry but the comments are very appropriate and considerate.
      Its a helluva lot better than the “sorry you guys got screwed” ones that I have endured and did not get offended.
      Thats the way it is . I said my piece and how I feel and I dont seek no “free pass” and was not looking for one.
      Some will get it and some will not.
      Thats life.

  14. Levi's Mom  March 23, 2020 at 2:54 pm Reply

    Losing a child taught me more about grief than I ever cared to know. I was one of those who used to say “He lived a good long life” in an attempt to offer my condolences. Now I say “They can never live long enough”. My mother passed about a year after my daughter. I felt nothing when Mama died except relief that she was no longer in pain. She was almost 95. I realize that my response was affected by the loss of my daughter the year before, so I don’t feel bad about not crying at Mama’s funeral when everyone else was in shambles. When a member of the older generations dies, we as a society lose so much that cannot be replaced by books, movies, newsreels. They were “there”. They lived it just as we are living it now. We can only hope that we learned enough in the time we had with them and be able to pass along our experience to those that follow.
    I am of the Baby Boomer generation. I also hope that we can learn from the following generations and improve what we already think we know. My daughter was a Millennial. I respect her memory, her knowledge, and her caring for other people. We lose a lot when we lose the young, as well as the old.

    • IWantMyMomBack  January 1, 2021 at 12:13 am Reply

      I am so sorry to hear about your child’s and grandparent passing, Levi’s mom. How did she die if you don’t mind me asking. My mom is 62 in the hospital and chances are she won’t recover. I have a 5 year old daughter and I am only 34, how did you cope with your daughter passing?

      • IsabelleS  January 1, 2021 at 1:38 pm

        Hi, thank you for taking the time to comment! As a quick reminder: We try to avoid asking people how their loved ones died. They may not be comfortable sharing this information, and such questions might bring up painful memories.

  15. GaryB  March 23, 2020 at 2:32 pm Reply

    Im sorry but let me personalize this as I am someone that lost his wife at 38 years of marriage at only 62. When I attended grief seminars many were much older in their 70s and 80s. They were able to have accumulated 50-60 years of marriage and lived out all their dreams of retirement and grandparent and great grand parenting- saw all the graduations and marriages they needed to see and got all the traveling in they were seeking.
    I am sorry if I turn to all those in that situation and say the “they / you lived a good long life” “they had so many great years together” “you were so fortunate to have had those years”.
    It was NOT to diminish at all but point out the fact that my poor soul wife did not see a minimal % of what she should have being stolen from me at 62!
    If that offends anyone-thats just too bad but do the math and run the numbers and be sure to include all who benefited from that long life and retirement to the poor soul that got 2 months of retirement with over 1 being in and out of hospitals and hospice.
    Sorry bout that- I do not relate.

  16. Nancy  March 23, 2020 at 12:51 pm Reply

    Thank you! So many helpful thoughts. If we stop valuing every life, of any age, we dehumanize every one of us and we are yanked down an ugly road that ends in the Nazi gas chambers. Every person no matter their intellectual abilities or their physical makeup or their heritage, culture or race has value to Him and so should to all of us.

  17. Sara Turner  March 22, 2020 at 10:30 am Reply

    I totally agree with you !! The death of any love 1 is devastating!!
    But I can understand that some think loosing a child is harder .
    I lost my 15 year old Son Scotty in 2010 , I am diagnosed with Abnormal Grief ? Loosing my Nan, Grandads , Nanna and other elder loved 1’s was devastating, but I coped with it ! It didn’t affect me like loosing my Scotty has ? I haven’t been able to go back to work , Scotty died on 18th July 2010 and apparently I should be better ? How can anyone be better when they loose a child ?
    So I do agree with what you have said !
    But I think it’s the way we deal with grief of an elderly loved 1 and a child .
    Everyone grieves differently ! And it’s ok to grieve in the way you are !!
    Stay safe all ❤️?

  18. Tanja Muscatello  March 22, 2020 at 10:25 am Reply

    Thank you, I have also felt very strongly about this generally and in response to our current situation . ??

  19. Barb McLeroy  March 20, 2020 at 9:34 pm Reply

    Thank you. This has bothered me for so long.

  20. Silvia  March 18, 2020 at 7:55 pm Reply

    Heartfelt thank you for this post.


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