Grief is an inevitable part of our lives, but is more frequently experienced by older adults. Numerous studies have shown that the loss of someone close to you can affect physical and mental health, including appetite changes, confusion, and social isolation (Kowalchuk, 2021). Other studies show how the immune system is impacted when someone is grieving, where they are more susceptible to infection (Vitlic et.al. 2014).
In a book published in 1969, Swiss-American psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross defined the five phases of grieving: anger, denial, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Studies have shown though that the phases don’t come in sequential order, but tend to oscillate. One study done in 2004 monitored widows for three months, measuring their emotional state daily, and it showed that people may experience various emotions throughout the grieving process (Bisconti, 2004).
But how can we keep on moving forward despite the loss of a close loved one? Keiro interviewed Bill Watanabe, a community leader, about his take on how he copes with death, and what keeps him going despite those good byes.
It’s like Losing an Arm
Bill shared that he recently attended three funerals within a span of a few months. “They say, when it rains, it pours. Sometimes you have periods where you don’t have any deaths, and other times, they come one right after another.” He also mentioned that he has a couple close friends who are currently on hospice, preparing for their deaths. In describing these deaths, he says losing someone feels “like losing a part of your body.” He feels the closer he is, the stronger the pain. He shared how he lost his younger brother during college, which “felt like losing an arm” and it took him a long time to come to terms with his brother’s death. Meanwhile, regarding a recent relative who passed, “I would make an analogy of losing my finger. It’s not like it’s my arm, but you’re still losing something.”
Keeping Busy but Never Forget
For Bill, whether it be his brother when he was young, or more recent deaths of close friends, he says the best remedy for him is to “keep busy with life” and move forward. He prefaced that everyone has their own way of coming to terms with grief and death, but shared, “you have to deal with your feelings and how it’s affecting you, but at the same time you have to keep your balance in life and stay active in what you are doing and just move forward.”
Bill currently is a grandfather to two grandchildren. He spends quality time with his family while remaining active in the community by serving on multiple non-profit boards and volunteering. He says that being busy helps him to process the passing of a close one.
While the pain will never go away, he feels that he doesn’t dwell on it as much as he used to. But occasionally, he remembers his loved ones. “Even today every now and then, I’ll think about — gee, my brother would be 77 this year, I wonder what he would be doing… it never fully goes away but it doesn’t linger in my mind like it did in the beginning.”
Staying Active for New Circle of Friends
Bill pointed out an additional benefit of staying active: new connections. “It’s important to stay active, and not be cut off from other people. For me, it is also how you make new friends. So, my circle of friendships may change. You lose people in your circle through death, but there are always new people coming into the circle.”
Talking about Death with Friends, Family, and Others
The losses he has experienced, according to Bill, are “reminders that we are all mortal, temporary, and impermanent.” Bill shared that while it’s not a natural conversation topic in the community, most people will probably be open to sharing if prompted. While it might not be a common topic, talking about death before it happens could be another way to open up and have meaningful conversations with those around us. “I think everyone should [mentally and physically] prepare for death [of close ones]. How am I going to handle when they pass?”
The interview made him also ponder about how his closest friends might react to such a topic. For the last 12 years, he has a tradition of a monthly brunch with his childhood friends. While they normally talk about fishing, vacation, or sports, he shared that the interview made him wonder what his friends’ responses would be if he prompted about such topic. “I think if I were to ask them, ‘Do you think about death or dying?’ It’d be interesting to see how they would react to that.”
He is having talks now with his longtime friend of 60 years, who is on hospice. As he considers this friend one of his closest, he knows that he needs to prepare for his death. He recently had a talk with him, to express to each other their gratitude for their long-standing friendship. “I guess I’ll have to deal with it the best I can, and realize you just have to keep moving forward. So, I guess I am ready, but… when it happens, I know I’m going to lose another arm.”
Bisconti, T. L., Bergeman, C. S., & Boker, S. M. (2004). Emotional well-being in recently bereaved widows: A dynamical systems approach. The Journals of Gerontology: Series B, 59(4). doi:10.1093/geronb/59.4.p158
Vitlic, A., Khanfer, R., Lord, J. M., Carroll, D., & Phillips, A. C. (2014). Retrieved from https://immunityageing.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1742-4933-11-13
Kowalchuk, K. (2021). Older people grieve differently. Retrieved from https://www.centerforgrieftherapy.com/older-people-grieve-differently/