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Observing Special Days Difficult for Surviving Family

Plan a dinner at another family member's house to help your loved one cope with their feelings during the holidays.

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The unpredictability of life can leave seniors reeling. When sudden loss occurs, make sure there’s support and encouragement for those left behind.

Q. My father died last year just as preparations were being made for my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary party, which would have been next month. Or course, our family is devastated that we are unable to celebrate this special occasion the way we’d planned. With my mother still grieving, how should we observe this day and others to come such as birthdays and holidays now that Dad is gone?

Please accept my condolences for your family's loss and take comfort that you are not alone. In the United States, approximately 40 percent of the population age 75 and older – 6.7 million people – lives alone, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Behind each of these statistics is a family like yours struggling to come to grips with the absence of a loved one. A death affects nearly every aspect of a family's life, particularly those special occasions that always brought them together.

When your parents’ 50th anniversary arrives, you, your mother and other family members should be prepared for strong feelings of grief. Confront those feelings and seek help through books or support groups, clergy and friends. Let those around you know that it's a difficult time. Those “first” anniversaries after the death of a loved one can be particularly difficult.

Before the anniversary day arrives, talk with other family members about what to do. For many, the best way to handle such a situation is to be together, but organize another type of event. Plan a dinner where you can celebrate your parents' life and toast their marriage. If that's too difficult, organize a trip or volunteer event, visit the cemetery or plan some type of memorial to your parents.

The death of your father also may change how your family observes traditions and holidays. In her book "A Woman's Guide to Living Alone: 10 Ways to Survive Grief and Be Happy," author Pamela Stone explains that memories can be powerful triggers during special observances so it's important to be prepared. “Ask yourself: Which family traditions are important? Which ones should you continue? Which ones should you change?” Stone recommends that you plan a dinner at another family member's house, donate to a charity instead of exchanging gifts or incorporate a new tradition such as decorating ornaments with a message to your father.

Finally, remember that while special occasions will be difficult for the entire family, the day-to-day loneliness can be particularly grueling for your mother. Make sure that she has plenty of support including companionship. Check out your local Area Agency on Aging, church or synagogue, senior center and other places where your mom can put her time and talent to good use.

Or consider hiring a companion such as a Home Instead CAREGiverSM. CAREGivers are screened trained, bonded and insured, and every effort is made to match the interests and hobbies of seniors with appropriate CAREGivers.

Last revised: July 26, 2011

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