This time of year is marketed as a Hallmark movie, with smiling scenes of happy families and voices lifted in song. Yet for many older people who have lost their spouse, or who may be facing health or financial challenges, the holidays tend to exacerbate feelings of aloneness.
Grief can intensify around the holidays as well, particularly if this season is associated with loss. End-of-life issues expert Michelle Peticolas says grief is a physical experience as much as an emotional one and needs to be addressed as such:
“Significant loss impacts the brain. The neural network pattern associated with a particular attachment — person, animal, object, identity, etc. is broken. It’s a little like a computer hard drive that freezes. The reality that a long-held attachment is gone simply does not compute.
“The pathways that previously led to pleasure, comfort, or love now lead to an abyss. It takes time for new brain pathways to replace the old, to develop a new pattern.
“The first order of business in navigating the physicality of grief is patience, just as one needs patience in healing a broken bone. A new physical structure is being built and this will take time.
“As with a broken bone, there are actions that can reduce the suffering and support the healing. Sleep and healthy eating are essential to any bodily repair. Exercise also heads the list because, in addition to boosting the immune system and filling the body with ‘feel good’ endorphins, it provides the body with a whole array of physical stimulation that supports brain development while renewing those pathways that are still intact.
“Focusing on the body can provide relief and release from grief energy that builds up in the body. Things that stimulate the senses, like sound, music, touch, physical movement, taste, aroma, and visuals all help to bring attention into the body. Being in the body takes the mind out of the flow of time — away from longing for the past and/or catastrophizing about the future. It is a temporary respite but a healthy one. It gives the nervous system a break from the emotional flood that grief can bring while supporting the physical healing of the mind.
“There are also times when any stimulation may be more than the brain can manage. In this case, activities that are soothing, relaxing, and evoke a feeling of safety and support tend to work best. Essential oils, hot baths, massage, being held or hugged by a trusted person are possible choices. Sitting in the sun, or walking in the forest is also good.
“Create a list of activities to rely on when unhappy or distressed. Put items, such as an essential oil or pictures of items, e.g. photo of the woods, with the list into your first aid kit for grief care. It can be an empowering action at a time when one feels quite helpless.”
For reverse mortgage professionals, the simple act of smiling at your senior client — even over the phone; the smile comes through in your voice — can have a huge, positive impact. One longtime LO says, “When I’m in a store and make eye contact with complete strangers in passing (women as well as men) with a relaxed countenance and a smile, they always return the smile, often with a nod. I can walk into a room on any occasion and start a conversation within a minute. The point is being open and approachable. Some people can’t do this. Those of us who can, and choose to, find our days are more pleasant and less stressful…plus we open ourselves to learning experiences and new activities from new acquaintances.
“We need to help older adults who may be alone to think about ways they can broaden their friendship base and learn to enjoy new activities they may not have explored previously, and a smile is a way to start.”
One of my favorite smile-inducing videos is Validation. This is all we really need from one another: to be validated in our everyday encounters. A reverse mortgage professional who shows a client true interest and care is halfway home. Happy holidays.