By Lisa

When tragedy hits our lives, a difficult period of grieving, confusion, and perhaps even depression sets in. Change is hard for most of us. Yet when catastrophes occur, we are often not the only ones affected. We face the uncomfortable task of informing our loved ones of the sad event. This can be an especially daunting task when we have to break the news to an elderly loved one, particularly if they have vulnerable health.

Most social workers agree, however, that being as honest as possible with older loved ones is important and that most of them experience a grieving period no different from that of other people. Here, they offer their tips for breaking bad news: who should do it, how to make it less of a shock, what kind of reaction can be expected, and how to help them cope with their grief.

First of all, social workers recommend telling your loved one that a tragedy has occurred. 

“The worst thing is not to tell them, because they’re going to ask to see that family member and to know how they’re doing,” said Ann Westfall, director of social services at LindenGrove Health Care Center, 425 N. University Drive, Waukesha. “You shouldn’t withhold information from patients. They need to go through the grieving process.”

“I don’t personally believe in not telling someone for their own good,” said Jan Brown, a social worker at Lutheran Homes of Oconomowoc, Inc., (Shorehaven Health Center), 1306 W. Wisconsin Ave., Oconomowoc. “I think they should be able to participate in all parts of life, both good and bad.”

Some say that how much you reveal depends on the state of the elderly loved one.

“It depends on their mentation, how sharp they are,” said Colleen McGuire, a social worker and admissions coordinator at Care-Age of Brookfield, 1755 N. Barker Rd., Brookfield. “Be as honest as you can be.”

McGuire also recommends letting your loved one know information as you receive it, so that if, for example, a relative found out they had cancer, your older loved one would be able to cope with that and follow the condition of their relative, rather than just telling them out of the blue that the relative died of cancer.

“If there was another family member that could come in and speak with them, we would definitely encourage that,” Westfall said. 

In the event that you or another relative are not able to personally convey the information to your loved one, you can request that a social worker or chaplain do it.

So how can you lessen the pain and shock of bad news, and tell your loved one of such tidings in a gentle way?

“It’s all about your body language and tone of voice,” Westfall said. “Make sure you don’t come in in a harsh, bold way.”

Westfall recommends using a calm voice, and holding your loved one’s hand while you explain that you don’t have good news. Then tell them what happened. McGuire suggests having as many family members present as possible to show the older relative that there are people there for them to help them cope with the news.

Granted, receiving the news that a relative has died of illness or been killed in a car accident will not produce a happy reaction in your loved one, but social workers say most handle bad news fairly well.

“I don’t know that their reaction is any different from any other person just because they’re older,” Brown said.

Brown added that receiving bad news is unlikely to have any serious effect on the health of the elderly loved one.

“They become tearful. They cry, that’s what we see most of. Going into depression, refusing their food,” Westfall said. 

She added that only a few people ever have hysterical reactions, and most people experience more sadness and grief than denial.

“There’s going to be a period of time where they might not want to eat because they’re grieving,” Brown said. “Will most people deal with it? Definitely.”

To help them through their grief, there are several things you can do.

Westfall recommends allowing them to express their feelings, allowing them to grieve. If necessary, have a nurse check on them every 15 minutes, and keep them around other people. Westfall said that it may also be helpful to have a family member come and stay in the care home with them overnight, or let them make an overnight trip to a relative’s home.

Helping with funeral arrangements for the deceased can help your loved one cope with their grief.

“Do some reminiscing, let them help plan the funeral, order flowers. Ask what songs they would like played. Just give them lots of opportunities to talk,” Brown said.

If your loved one takes the bad news particularly hard, extra steps may be needed. Pay extra attention to those who may be depressed, McGuire said. Be a support to them or call in a psychotherapist to work with them over some coping issues, she said.

So the next time tragedy strikes, remember that sharing the news with an elderly loved one can help you through your grieving as well, as you comfort one another.