Mind Matters -- July 2004
Written by Ron Sterling, M.D. and Published in Northwest Prime Time Magazine

Life After Loss
by Ron Sterling, M.D. -- July 2004

    Dear Dr. Ron:

      I had a much stronger reaction to Ronald Reagan's death than I thought would ever be possible. Every time I saw Nancy Reagan near Ronald Reagan's casket, I cried. Just the week before that, it was all about D-Day and Memorial Day. Funerals and observances of death and dying were everywhere and deeply affected me. Now, I worry about how I am going to handle it if my wife dies before I do. -- Signed: Worried About Life After Loss.

    Dear Worried:

      Thank you for writing! Like you, I found the television coverage of all the Reagan family members to be very heart-rending. Grief and the mourning process are very complicated emotional experiences that cannot be summarized easily. However, I will try to cover a few important issues about life after loss.

      People do not usually experience grief without a real loss or an anticipated loss. In your situation, you may already be experiencing grief reactions based on an anticipated loss of your wife. Although most of us agree on what might constitute a loss, the perception of loss and the reaction to it are very unique and individual. You have a perfect right to have your feelings.

      For us older folks, loss is a predominant theme in our lives. We are challenged by many losses: deaths of friends, colleagues, and relatives, changes in work status, prestige, and loss of physical abilities and good health. Due to this "loss-ridden" environment, it is very important to remember that losses may hit us much harder and may take longer than expected to resolve. Note to younger folks: give older folks more sensitivity and support in times of mourning than you might think you need. The impact of a loss on an older person can often be underestimated due to beliefs such as "aging prepares a person to cope better with losses." It doesn't.

      The major myths about mourning are (1) there is a predictable, orderly set of stages to mourning, (2) it's best to move away from grief rather than toward it, and (3) following the death of a loved one, the goal is to "get over" it. It is significant to note that in 1927 Emily Post reported that a widow's formal mourning period was three years. Yet, in 1972, Amy Vanderbilt advised a bereaved person to pursue, or try to pursue, a usual social course within a week or so after a funeral. Current society tends to pressure for quick recoveries. Although three years is thought of as a bit lengthy, resuming regular social activities in a week is definitely too short.

      How we handle losses (mourning) has much to do with our resilience. Factors that contribute to resiliency are flexibility, creativity, optimism, sociability, openness to learning, and the ability to redefine loss or failure in terms that allow for continued learning. Trauma and loss can give rise to personal transformations and growth. The Chinese symbol for "crisis" is identical to the symbol for "opportunity."

      Victor Frankl, a psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, wrote extensively about the "defiant power of the human spirit." He noted that there is a fundamental difference between pain and suffering in that "suffering" is how we choose to react to pain. "Conditions cannot completely condition us. Everything can be taken from us, but the last of human freedoms, to choose one's attitude, can never be taken away." Frankl called this the spiritual dimension.

      Aging and the losses it brings may present us with our greatest opportunity to connect with our spiritual dimension and to defy conditions and choose our attitude. This may just be the ultimate meaning of growing older. I hope this is helpful. For more information about grief, please visit AllAboutGrief.org. -- Best wishes, Dr. Ron.

        Author Bio:

        Ron Sterling, M.D. is a 64 year-old General and Geriatric Psychiatrist with a private practice in Seattle. He invites you to e-mail him at with any questions about mental wellness or emotional, relationship, or aging concerns. He is the only person who reads e-mail sent to Dr. Ron. Please be assured that your questions and identities are completely confidential and protected. For more information about Dr. Ron and for resources related to senior mental health, please go to SeniorMentalHealth.org. Read our Disclaimer. If you wish to understand more about Dr. Sterling's potential biases in health care advocacy, please check his Conflicts of Interest Disclosure Statement

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