Mourning Before Death: The Anguish Families Go Through

Mourning before death is an anguish many families experience. This pileup of complex emotions is known as “anticipatory loss.” “The deterioration of function, disability, and suffering have their own grieving processes, but helping families deal with that isn’t built into the health care system.

The anguish accompanying aging isn’t openly discussed. Instead, these emotions are typically acknowledged only after a loved one’s death, when formal rituals recognizing a person’s passing, the wake, the funeral, the shiva, begin.

But frailty and serious illness can involve significant losses over an extended period of time, giving rise to sadness and grief for years.

For the families of seniors and the disabled residing in skilled nursing homes or assisted living communities, the question is: how do families cope?




Mourning: Helpful Strategies For Skilled Nursing Staff

The key for families is to acknowledge your feelings. The loss of a parents independence is the need to use a walker or wheelchair. The loss of shared memories is painful for adult children when their older father is diagnosed with dementia. Staff should encourage families to acknowledge their feelings and try to normalize them, and understand that everyone goes through this.


Mourning: Talk Openly

When families avoid talking about an aging parent’s frailty or serious illness, the person with the condition can become isolated and family relationships can become strained.


Mourning: Communicate Sensitively


For a caregiver of someone with dementia, that might mean saying, “Sometimes you might see a look crossing my face and think that I’m disappointed. It’s not that I’m upset with you. It’s that I’m sad that there are things that happened in our past that we don’t remember together.”

For someone who has suffered a stroke, it might mean encouraging them to open up about how hard it is to lose a measure of independence and be seen as someone who’s disabled.


Mourning: Lean In

How people respond to sadness and grief varies, depending on their personality, past experiences, the relationship they have with the person who’s frail or ill, and the nature of that person’s condition.

If possible, lean in and move toward the family members and be as engaged with them as possible, particularly on an emotional level.” In the end, connection eases the pain of grief.


Mourning: Seek Support

Families depend on nursing staff to help them confront the grief. Their emotional support ultimately shapes and affects the families measure of peace to the decline of their loved one.

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