Grief Support

Moving On When A Senior’s Spouse Has Died

Change can be tough for anyone to handle, especially after so many years of being used to a situation. That’s why many seniors have trouble handling change. They get into a routine that can last for decades.

So when a senior loses their husband or wife, they’re facing an immense change. Even if they can magically get past the grief associated with the death of a spouse, they are facing one of the biggest changes in their lives. Now, they have to move on alone.

Thankfully, there are ways to help seniors emerge from this huge change successfully. Yes, it is possible to move on after a spouse has died.

The Gap In Their Life

One thing to remember about grieving over the death is that this is a process, not an event. That means dealing with this loss will take time and cannot be instantly cured by a better event. It also means that everybody will deal with this on their own pace; there’s no set time that a senior will suddenly be over things.

Also, you need to know that men and women sometimes react differently to that new gap in their life. Both are in pain and need support, of course. But some men will be at a loss for household chores normally done by their wife, whereas some women can worry about feeling safe at home with the loss of their husband.


Making Sure Homelife Will Work

How can you help a senior coping with the loss of their spouse? Rather than trying to fix them or create the one thing that makes it all better, start by focusing on the senior’s daily life.

For example, look into having essential things delivered to their home. Most seniors take medicine of some kind, so having them dropped off can make sure the widow remembers to take them. Hiring a housekeeper can be a huge help, especially if the spouse who passed on did most of the cleaning. Just knowing that a housekeeper will come by to wash some dishes and vacuum the rugs can help with their mood.

You can also look into technologies that help seniors live alone at home. A tablet or smartphone with a strong camera can lead to video chats that help reduce loneliness, while a Fitbit can help seniors (and you) keep an eye on fitness and health.


Taking Control Of The Grief

Because this is a process that takes time, there isn’t any panacea or cure-all for the depression that follows the loss of a loved one. However, there are a few things most everyone can do to take control of that grief.

  • Make sure the surviving spouse is taking care of themself. That means exercising, eating right, taking medications, and getting enough sleep.
  • Build a positive social circle around the widow. Having a good friend to help take their mind off things can make a huge difference.
  • Avoid making any major life decisions such as moving. Right now, stability and predictability are much more important.

They Can Move On

At first, moving on might seem impossible. There are just too many things to think about. However, by understanding how the grief process works, the senior can get a handle on it. Then by making a few improvements to their daily life and gaining control over grief, that senior can emerge from this huge change soon enough.


Childhood and Grief

A child's ability to understand death varies according to his or her age.

Infants and Toddlers feel a loss through the absence of a loved one, interruption in their regular routine, and through the grief and stress they sense in their parents or other family members. Make sure to spend extra time holding and cuddling the child, and try to keep them on a regular schedule as much as possible. 

Younger children might have trouble understanding the permanence of death or differentiating between fantasy and reality. They also might believe the death of a loved one is a form of punishment for something the child did. When you talk to young children about death, make sure to use concrete language, avoid euphemisms, and reassure the child that the death is not a consequence of something he or she did.


Older children are beginning to understand the permanence of death, and might associate it with old age or personify it in terms of frightening images or a cartoonish boogeyman. They often know more about how the body works, and have more specific questions. It's important to answer their questions to the best of your ability, and provide as much specific, factual information as possible. Try to keep them to regular routines, and give them opportunities for the constructive venting of feelings and grief.


Teenagers process grief more like adults, experiencing anger and sadness as they begin to cope. Don't feel disappointed if it seems that they may want to talk more to their friends than to parents, this is normal and can help them to share their feelings and heal. Because their grief is similar to that of an adult, a teenager may take longer to recover from a loss than a younger child. Questions may come up about mortality and vulnerability, and your role is to empathize with them, listen to their concerns, and remind them that their feelings are normal and things will get better with time.


Tips for Talking to Children about Death

  • Use concrete terms when talking about death. Don't shy away from the words "death" and "dead". While it might seem gentler to use phrases like "passed away" or "went to sleep", this can be confusing for a child and lead to difficulty understanding the finality of death.

  • If your child doesn't understand what death means, try explaining it in terms of the body, such as "Aunt Rachel's body stopped working".

  • Encourage questions, and answer them to the best of your ability.

  • Be honest when you don't know the answer. An honest, "I just don't know the answer to that one", can be more comforting than a made-up answer or an answer you don't believe.

  • Your child will probably be dealing with a lot of difficult emotions, some of which he or she may not have experience before. Give your child a safe space to express his or her emotions, and spend time talking openly about his or her feelings and thoughts.

  • Remember that recovery is an ongoing process. Young children often experience periods of normalcy which interrupt their intense grief, and the alternating periods might shift over the course of hours, days, or even years.

  • Listen to their fears and reassure them. Children can develop fears as the result of a loved one's death. Whether it's an irrational fear linked to the cause of death, a fear of losing you or another family member, or a fear that something they did caused the death to happen, spend time comforting your children and helping to assuage their fears.

  • If your family holds particular religious beliefs about what happens after you die, you can share them with your child as a source of comfort (but don't introduce it too soon, as it might be too abstract for kids under age 5). An alternate approach is to let them decide for themselves, by saying something like, "No one knows for sure. Some people think you go to heaven, while others believe people come back on earth as different creatures. What do you think?"

  • Don't hide your own grief. It's important for children to know that adults cry when they're very sad, too, and that their feelings of grief are normal and shared by others. Let them know that you're okay, and find comfort together by sharing your feelings and remembering the loved one who is gone.

  • If your child seems to be struggling especially hard with a loss, or if grief is seriously interfering with their day-to-day activities, routines, and outlook on life, don't be afraid to seek professional help or therapy when it's needed.


Helpful Resources

The following links provide more detailed information on a variety of topics related to helping children and teens cope with loss.


When Families Grieve™

This guide was created by Sesame Workshop, the educational organization behind Sesame Street. It explores children's understanding of death and offers information about communicating, ideas for coping together, and ways to move forward with your children after a loss.

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Helpful Children's Books

This list from Allina Health recommends children’s books that deal with death and grief. There are suggestions for children of all ages, from preschool to age 12. They also have books for different types of losses, such as the loss of a parent, sibling, grandparent, friend, or pet. With these books, you can start a meaningful conversation with your child and help them understand their feelings

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More Advice

Here you'll find a Huffington Post article by Judith Acosta containing advice and guidance from her book Verbal First Aid, which counsels parents on ways to help kids heal from fear and pain in a variety of situations, including the death of a loved one. If you find the advice in the article helpful, you may want to read her book for even more insight.

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