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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