Nursing Home Guide: Coping with Death & Grief

At some point in our lives, we all must deal with the loss of someone we love. The loss may come after a lengthy illness, or it may come suddenly. Our loved one may have spent months or years in a hospital or nursing home, or they may live in our home. However it happens, we must cope with the person’s absence and deal with our grief.

It is widely accepted that people move through five distinct stages as they deal with grief over the loss of a loved one. The five stages of grief are sometimes called the Kubler-Ross model after the Swiss psychiatrist who developed the theory, Elizabeth Kubler-Ross. This model set forth a series of emotions people go through as they grieve, including denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. She introduced this model in her book On Death and Dying. Her model was developed as a result of work she did with terminally ill patients. The stages are not a linear progression, and some people may not experience all of them, but they are a framework to understand what we are feeling when we experience a profound loss.


Often, when we don’t want to face something, we deny that it is happening. Denial is a defense mechanism that’s used to help numb the initial shock of a loss. We tell ourselves that what is happening isn’t happening: We block out the news we are hearing and the reality that is upon us. When life changes in an instant, we tend to want to believe that it isn’t really happening. This is way to deal with the overwhelming emotions a loss brings about. By denying the loss, some of the impact of the initial shock is spread out so that we don’t have to absorb it all at once.


Denial can only last for a while: The pain of reality must eventually emerge. That pain is often manifested as anger. We may direct that anger at the person we have lost or at others around us. We may ask questions such as, “why me?” We don’t understand why something so painful has happened. Those of strong faith may be angry at whatever higher power they believe in. Anger is a natural and necessary part of the process. It is what reconnects us with reality, as painful as it is.


When we have lost someone we love, we often feel that we have no control over the circumstances swirling around us. We want to find a way to regain that control. We seek to do that through “if/then” statements. These bargains are often directed toward a higher power, such as, “If you give me back my grandfather, then I will be a better person.” We know logically that these bargains won’t work, but we feel like we must try. This stage also can involve feelings of guilt and regret: People might say things like, “If I had encouraged her to go to the doctor sooner, this might not have happened.”


Depression is commonly associated with grief. Depression is more than just sadness: It is an empty feeling. Our loved one has left an empty place in our lives, and we feel that emptiness. In this stage, you may feel like you are living in a fog. You do not enjoy the things you used to enjoy. You might withdraw from people and activities you once surrounded yourself with. You may feel hopeless and overwhelmed.


With time, the emotions associated with loss become manageable. The fog lifts, and life can resume. Nothing is ever quite the same, but with acceptance, we can establish a new normal. It is not the end of sadness or bad days, but the good days outnumber the bad days at this stage.

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