Blog - Bereavement in later life
In our latest blog, Research Fellow Caroline Pearce discusses challenges around bereavement, as she relaunches the Bereavement Journal.
In the UK, we find it difficult as a society to talk about death. When someone dies, commonly used phrases such as ‘I’m sorry for your loss’ help us navigate conversations that can make many us feel uncomfortable.
Bereavement is both an intensely personal and social experience. How we individually respond to death and grief reflects the values of the society in which we live. When a person dies in later life, utterances such as “He lived a long life” or “At least she made it to 90” reflect the shared assumption that death in older age is timely, natural and to be expected.
Across the world, but particularly those living in western societies, people are increasingly have their first experience of bereavement later in life. People bereaved in older age may thus feel just as unprepared for bereavement as at any other stage in the life course (Pearce and Komaromy, 2021).
A recent report by Independent Age found that there are specific challenges more likely experienced by those grieving in later life (Davies et al. 2021). These include the impact of having been a carer, the death of a life partner of many years, and increased loneliness and reflections on one’s own mortality.
Bereavement in later life occurs within the context of changes to physical and cognitive capacities, reduction in social connections, and changes to living environments (for example, moving into supported accommodation). Such changes we experience as we age do not have to be experienced as losses, yet the death of a partner, family members, and friends can compound the challenges of deterioration, frailty and isolation that we might experience as we get older.
From my own research on bereavement, I have found older participants often report the most acute feelings of loneliness in bereavement. For those who had experienced the death of a partner who they had cared for in later life, they described not only the loss of a life partner but also a profound loss of their sense of purpose in life (Pearce and Komaromy 2020). Rather than simple acceptance of the inevitable, bereavement in later life can result in a loss of the ‘wholeness of self’ as people question their meaning and identity at an existential level (Fang and Carr 2021).
Informal networks of support are often the first port of call following a bereavement. Existing social connections and networks often strengthen individual resilience to the impacts of grief. However, in later life, our social networks outside the home may reduce as family members and peers die. This loss of social resilience can be exacerbated by a reluctance to seek support, or lack of available support services for older adults. Bereavement support tends to involve emotional support such as counselling that may feel ‘quite alien’ to older adults (Davies et al. 2021). Further, with the assumption that bereavement and death are to be expected, people may feel their grief is less valid and their needs are less worthwhile.
Engagement in community activities and developing personal projects can help rebuild one’s purpose and enjoyment in life following bereavement. Improved grief literacy and a focus on community-based approaches can provide a helpful move away from individualised models of grief support.
Death and bereavement are everyone’s business but much about the bereavement experiences of people in later life remains hidden. The work of the ACRC plays a key role in developing our understanding of experiences of bereavement, loneliness and social isolation to ensure that later life is experienced as much more than an accumulation of losses.
Addressing gaps in our understanding of bereavement in later life is also important. Bereavement research, predominately drawn from psychological perspectives, has directed its focus largely on complex forms of grief and the ‘ordinary’ deaths of older age have been overlooked.
The recently relaunched Bereavement journal seeks to provide a home for bereavement research that explores the diversity of bereavement experiences at all stages of the life course. If you would like to find out more about the latest bereavement research and how to engage with the journal, visit our website here.
Davies, A., Roberts, I., Bushnell, J. (2021) Grief encounters: experiences of bereavement support in later life. London: Independent Age. https://www.independentage.org/policy-and-research/grief-encounters
Fang, C. and Carr, S. (2021) ‘They’re going to die at some point, but we’re all going to die’ – a qualitative exploration of bereavement in later life. Omega: Journal of death and dying. https://doi.org/10.1177/00302228211053058
Caroline Pearce and Carol Komaromy. (Eds) (2021) Narratives of parental death, dying and bereavement: A kind of haunting. Palgrave: London.
Caroline Pearce and Carol Komaromy (2020) Recovering the body in grief: physical absence and embodied presence, Health, https://doi.org/10.1177/1363459320931914.