Dear Carol: This January marks one year since my mother died. My dad adored her, as we all did, but he's having a harder time adjusting than we kids, which I suppose is to be expected. Mom had cancer but her treatments proved to be ineffective so she eventually went on hospice care. With hospice helping, Mom was coherent during the holidays last year. We got through it, and Dad did admirably well, considering the circumstances. I think he kept up a front for Mom's sake.
Once she died, which was mid-month, he fell apart and had only marginally recovered before this year's holidays approached. The family struggled through a low-key Thanksgiving and Christmas, but with the New Year and Mom's death anniversary coming up, I'm afraid for Dad. Though he made an effort over Christmas for the grandchildren, he's now become depressed and withdrawn. I know that suicide is an issue for older people. I don't think he's that bad, yet, but I'm scared. - FM
Dear FM: Your whole family has my heartfelt sympathy. It's understandable that you are all struggling, and you're insightful to see that it's even worse for your dad. Your thoughts that he kept up a good front for your mom as she was dying, and again for the grandchildren over this year's holidays, are likely correct. However, that does make him vulnerable in the aftermath, and yes, suicide is far too common in this age group, which is very scary.
You may have talked to him about getting counseling for depression, but if you did and he refused, try again. Tell him how worried you are about his health and that you want to see him get better, for his sake, of course, but also for you and the grandchildren. Remind him that your mom would have wanted him to heal and continue on with a good life.
I feel strongly that he needs to see a specialist to address his grief and depression, but if he refuses, maybe you could convince him to see his primary doctor for a physical. You could then send the primary doctor a letter outlining your concerns so that he can ask the right questions when he sees your dad. It's possible that your dad might accept a referral to a specialist from a professional.
Meanwhile, see your dad often. Call him just to check in. Include him in family gatherings, perhaps even adding a "pizza night" or something that the family can do weekly. Invite him to anything that the grandchildren are taking part in. Don't overwhelm him, since many people need some time alone to process grief, but he needs to know that there is still a reason to live and that life continues to have much to offer.
Your concern about your dad is warranted so you're smart to be on top of it. While you don't want to overreact, if you think that he's actively considering suicide you need to contact authorities.
Carol Bradley Bursack is an established columnist, blogger, and the author of a support book on caregiving. She hosts a website supporting caregivers and elders at www.mindingourelders.com. Carol can be reached at email@example.com.