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" Despite age differences, people in the groups offer compassion and understanding to the elderly who feel alone and forlorn. "
In my family, our oldest loved one is my aunt, 85 years old, going on 60. It seems she doesn’t age, but time has not been kind to her in terms of grief.

She has buried a daughter, all four siblings, her husband, and a nephew, as well as all the extended family members in her generation and many of her closest friends. When my cousin, her niece, died in the spring my aunt was inconsolable at the wake and funeral. Wrapping me in a hug, she struggled to get out the words, “I’m so tired of burying my family. We shouldn’t have to bury our children, our nieces and nephews. My heart is just so broken, and I’m so tired just missing them.”

As the Church marked the second annual observance of World Day for Grandparents and the Elderly in July, the faithful have been called by Pope Francis to honor the elderly, which includes acknowledging their unique challenges – among them a distinctive experience of loss and grief, often accompanied by an overwhelming loneliness following a cascade of losses.

A friend, who is among the newly bereaved, expressed it powerfully: “When the elderly lose people, their world grows smaller. The people who know them best, who shared experiences growing up, who understand them, grow fewer and possibly no longer exist.”

“Grief is complicated and not always fair,” stressed Dr. Christina Liparini, adjunct faculty, Department of Professional Psychology and Family Therapy, Seton Hall University, South Orange. She pointed out that, often, “our older adults confront what we consider the unnatural experience or order of surviving their own children and grandchildren [or] their younger friends may die first.” 

Dr. Liparini, a licensed psychologist who is also group volunteer co-facilitator at the grief support center, Good Grief (located in Morristown and Princeton), explained, “Older adults may find it particularly difficult to forge meaning out of the loss of their own child or grandchild. Feelings of anger and resentment can emerge and feel uncomfortable to acknowledge and sit with.”

Moving Past Fear

While serving in bereavement ministry, I saw an element of anxiety that often accompanied grief, especially in older people who have lost a spouse, and came to understand the underlying cause of the anxiety as fear.

Tearful questions like, “Who is going to take me to the doctor?” translate in broader depth to “Who is going to listen to what the doctor says and help me make decisions? I can’t do this alone.”

Fears about the simplest of daily experiences, like driving or forgetting to pay a bill, to a deeper fear of the future can complicate grief with worrying to the point of exhaustion but leave the bereaved unable to sleep. It’s no surprise that I sometimes receive daily emails from those who are grieving the loss of a loved one that simply say, “Please pray for me.”

Dr. Liparini stressed that faith communities and social supports, “help us navigate the work of grieving.” In the Diocese of Trenton, that work is facilitated by parish grief support groups.

Gift of Parish Support

Paula Little, coordinator of three bereavement support groups in St. Pius X Parish, Forked River, explained, “In the ‘safe’ environment of a well facilitated support group, seniors, as well as younger members, feel free to explore their sorrow without fear …They are encouraged and supported as they find the answers that work for them.”

Little considers these groups as “the best support our Church offers. Members form relationships based on mutual understanding, respect and shared experiences of grief … helping seniors feel less isolated.”

Sue Roggio, leader of the Consolation Ministry in St. Mary of the Lakes Parish, Medford, shared that the group environment “provides a bonding opportunity … Despite age differences, people in the groups offer compassion and understanding to the elderly who feel alone and forlorn.”

Outside the meetings, said Roggio, participants “often call one another, meet for lunch or to accompany someone else to church and/or a doctor visit.” After the program ends the bonding continues, providing, “an extended support system that may not be available in any other way.”

Al Martella, co-facilitator of the Loss and Grief program in St. David the King Parish, Princeton Junction, observed that “a challenge many older individuals face when suffering a loss is dealing with the ups and downs of their emotions. Many seniors were taught to be ‘stoic’ and ignore the emotions associated with loss and grief.”

Parish support groups, he said, help “to demystify the concept of loss and grief by focusing on several key thoughts: Loss is a normal part of life and grief is the normal human response; grief is a personal and individual experience; it is critical to face our loss and give it full expression, and we must be patient with ourselves as it happens.”

Additionally, stressed Carol DeMuria, who coordinates the grief support group in St. Benedict Parish, Holmdel, parish support groups offer prayer and ritual which “can be experiences of balance, peace and remembering – important aspects of the grieving process.”

With so many grieving seniors feeling they have lost a sense of purpose, DeMuria also suggests volunteering, when the time is right, and directs them to the parish food pantry, the RCIA program, or other parish ministries like the Knights of Columbus. Once engaged, they not only find purpose but also develop new relationships.

Importance of Listening

When asked how to help, Dr. Liparini replied, “In the simplest of terms, show up for our elderly community members,” stressing the need for “a listening ear and offer of ongoing social connection. Like anyone grieving, the elderly want to feel seen and heard.”

Dr. Liparini noted that we fail to talk with the elderly, not only about their losses, but about “their end-of-life wishes, and fail to hear their feelings, including regrets, about their lives. Our elderly population are also confronting their own mortality and looking back to see what their legacy will be. Can they look back on their life with pride?”

She stressed that the most important thing we can all do is “not shy away from talking about death and grief. … I challenge you to push back against this impulse and, also, the idea that there is no one perfect or right way to help.  If we wait for the exact right time or right opportunity, we may just leave the grieving person even more isolated.”

The writer, Mary Clifford Morrell, was trained as a parish bereavement facilitator through the Archdiocese of New York.  To learn more about Dr. Liparini’s grief support work, visit good-grief.org. For more information on parish- and community-based grief support groups, visit dioceseoftrenton.org/bereavement-ministry.