Saying Goodbye Grief and Loss and the Aging Journey, by Rhonda Latreille, MBA, CSA

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Professionals in the Financial Planning Industry have an important role to play in helping their clients deal with grief, loss and the challenges of aging. As most advisors know, it extends well beyond the traditional role of providing advice on financial and estate planning matters. Money and emotions are intertwined at the best of times. Add a major loss to the mix and it can be overwhelming for a client, especially if there are important financial decisions to be made. Having an understanding of the grief process and being a good listener will help the client in ways well beyond dollars alone.

As we go through this journey called �life�, there can be many small and large losses that make up the mosaic of our experience. We lose our parents, our spouses, and our friends, and we sometimes even lose our children. We may lose our mobility, have to move out of our home, lose our pets, may lose our hearing, our vision, and perhaps even our coveted driver�s license. Loved ones can become lost to us through Alzheimer�s disease or other forms of dementia. If you have aging parents, friends, or family members, they are likely experiencing various forms of loss and are somewhere in the grief process.

Let�s look at this �grief process.� We sometimes hear people make comments like, �You should be over it by now � it is time to move on.� But where is the line � what is normal grief versus dysfunctional grief? Researchers, clergy, and clinicians have puzzled over this for decades. Some people recover soon after a loss, others may grieve intensely for a short time and move on, while others may experience profound grief for years. Research suggests that 50-80% of people experience moderate disruption of cognitive, emotional, physical, or interpersonal function for the first few months after the loss of a loved one, returning to normal functioning within one year. (Bonnano & Kaltman, 2001).

There exist various models to help try to understand the �grief process.� Perhaps the most popular model is the Stage Model of Grieving, promoted by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross. This model describes 5 stages that individuals may go through. These stages can be experienced by an individual who has received a diagnosis of a serious illness, and can also be applied to someone who has experienced the loss of someone or something held dear. It is important to recognize that these stages are not necessarily linear, and that individuals can experience only some of the stages, or may re-experience specific stages repeatedly. The five stages are:

  1. Denial. Just think about our first reaction to shocking news. We often respond with, �No � this can�t be happening�. At first blush, denial may seem like an unrealistic response to dramatic news. Upon reflection, we can see that this is actually quite an adaptive response, providing a temporary buffer to allow us the opportunity to digest the information and formulate other coping alternatives. Prolonged periods of denial tend to be unusual, and are best met with sensitivity and understanding.
  2. Anger. Anger can often serve as a way to try to exercise control over a situation we may have little or no control over. If we can find something or someone to blame, then that implies that something could have been or can be done differently. For example, anger can be directed at a disease, a doctor or the medical system, the deceased person for having the disease or dying, or even at oneself for not remaining healthy. If you are on the receiving end of a grieving person�s anger, do not take it personally and try not to react. Instead, recognize that the grieving person perceives you as a �safe� place to experience a mixture of confusing and sometimes frightening feelings.
  3. Bargaining. When anger doesn�t work, we can sometimes try to negotiate a different reality. People may plead with God or powerful others to change the outcome in return for certain behaviours. �Just let me live long enough to see my grandchild born, and I�ll make that donation.�
  4. Depression. It is �normal� to expect a form of depression in response to traumatic news or the loss of a loved one. Depression can be �reactive� to a specific loss, or can be �preparatory� in anticipation of a future loss. Suggesting that it is time for someone to �cheer up� often reflects our lack of comfort with their loss, and does not help to facilitate movement toward resolution.
  5. Acceptance. Sometimes people avoid acceptance for fear that this means �giving up.� True acceptance is not resignation, but instead, a coming to a place of peace with the situation.

Perhaps you are recognizing these stages with yourself and/or a loved one. Family members are often at different stages from the person facing their own death.

Just �being there� and listening can be the greatest gift to offer a person in any stage of the grief process. We don�t need to try to come up with answers and profound platitudes, or to try to talk people out of their feelings. Remember that everyone grieves in their own way. On the other hand, if the grief is interfering with daily functioning for more than two months after the loss, a referral to a local bereavement service in your community may be helpful.

I will close with a quote by Henri Nouwen:

�When we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives means the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving much advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a gentle and tender hand. The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares.�

Rhonda Latreille, MBA, CSA
President, Canadian Academy of Senior Advisors,

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