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Minding our Elders: Death of spouse leaves painful nighttime void

DEAR CAROL: My mom died of cancer six months ago at the age of 73. Her death wasn’t unexpected, so while it was hard, the family concentrated on being grateful that her suffering was over.

Dad seems to be doing okay except at night. He misses her next to him so he can’t sleep. He says he reads most of the night and I know he naps a lot during the day.

I know Dad’s lonely. Since he’s had dogs before, I suggested that another dog may help provide companionship but he says he doesn’t want one. I just want to see him enjoy what life he has left. I visit often but how else can I help?

– Terry

DEAR TERRY: The kind of grief your dad is suffering from may never completely go away. He’s had your mother sleeping next to him for decades, so the comfort they gave each other is part of his being. However, you are right in wanting to help him recover as much as he can and enjoy life.

Before you can truly help him, you need to accept your limits. Understand that your dad will recover in his own time and in his own way. It could be helpful for him to attend a grief support group or obtain some professional grief counseling if he’ll go. You mom’s oncologist may be able to recommend a group and/or a counselor.

A pet is a good idea for some people and he may decide to do that down the road but that must be his decision. You could also encourage him to attend activities at the local senior center. Even if he started by going for lunch on occasion he’d meet new people.

Your dad likely spent a lot of time and energy helping take care of your mom so there may be a void in the sense that he doesn’t feel helpful now that she’s gone. The Retired Senior Volunteer Program, better known as RSVP, is an organization that may be able to help your dad find satisfaction in helping others. RSVP is a part of Senior Corps where people 55 and over can contribute their time and expertise. If your dad is fairly healthy and has enjoyed people in the past, volunteering through RSVP or another program could, in time, help him live a fuller life.

Be patient. Six months isn’t a long time to recover from losing a lifelong mate. Gently provide your dad with options but don’t push him too hard, at least for awhile. Everyone grieves differently and covering up the grief to please others won’t help your dad in the long run.

I’m sure it’s difficult for you to hear about your dad’s emotional suffering and you are likely still grieving the loss of your mom, as well. Time should help you both. Unless your dad develops serious signs of depression, I think that you’ll need to simply accept where he is in his grief. You can make some gentle suggestions, but it’s up to him to decide when to move forward.