Dementia brings ‘unofficial loss’ and often leads to grieving alone

MAY 28, 2023 6:00 AM

When my teenage sister died in a car accident, friends and neighbors blessed our family with oodles of food. The large dining room table, used only on holidays, was covered with food, enough to serve all the out-of-town family members who crowded in the living room. In the aftermath of a horrific death, community support was abundant and healing, a source of comfort, both emotional and practical. Our family’s grief was recognized and honored; it was “official” grief in the eyes of the world.

This is in sharp contrast to what happens when a spouse develops dementia. In her November 2019 New York Times article, “The Loneliness of Frontotemporal Dementia,” Dr. Sara Manning Peskin quoted a spousal caregiver as saying:

“This grief is not official … Casseroles do not appear at the front door, flowers are not delivered, condolence letters are not received.”

At a time when a spouse has lost a partner, the community often retreats rather than rallies around. It’s well known that spousal caregivers end up isolated. What is less well known is that in their isolation they are grieving alone.

Their spouses are alive and yet no longer present. It is what family therapist Pauline Boss calls an “ambiguous loss.” During my husband’s long years of decline, it often felt as if someone had kidnapped him. I’d look at the stranger in the familiar body and ask myself, “Who are you? And what have you done with my husband?”

Friends disappear. At first I wondered what was wrong with us that our friends had disappeared. Then I realized it was normal and happens to most people. I learned to treasure those rare people who stayed or re-appeared. When my husband was in skilled nursing care, it was a great comfort to me when other people recognized his existence by visiting or sending him a birthday card.

To engage in conversation with someone with dementia it helps to let go of expectations. The person we once knew is no longer present. If we recognize that loss and acknowledge our grief, we are better positioned to engage with the new person before us. Visiting with someone with dementia can be an opportunity for creativity and to practice cognitive flexibility. It can be good for us, a different form of exercise and meditation.

When my husband was still well, he had a lovely dinner with his mother at a Chinese restaurant when her dementia was quite pronounced. They ordered two entrees to share. My mother-in-law took some of the first dish, declared it excellent, and then did the same with the second. Next she returned to the first dish and said, “Oh, I haven’t tried this one.” And try it again she did, once again for the first time. Each dish she tried, no matter how many times she’d tried it before, was for the first time. By the time dinner was over, my husband estimated she’d enjoyed a full Chinese banquet. He exercised cognitive flexibility in not correcting her.

If you know someone whose spouse has dementia, please reach out. Take the person to lunch and listen, really listen. Ask the spouse what he or she misses the most. Acknowledge that their life has changed, that they have had an “unofficial loss.” Sometimes it may be more helpful to take the person with dementia out for lunch or for a walk, to give the caregiver some precious alone time.

It can be especially hard to comfort a caregiver who denies their loss, and many do. This semi-heroic stance seems admirable, but the pain is present nonetheless. It’s a delicate balancing act to acknowledge both the presence and the absence of the person with dementia. Of course dementia is a gradual loss not a sudden death and the caregiver’s needs change over time and sometimes even from day to day. Staying in touch helps you know what kind of support is most helpful.

What happens when the person with dementia dies? Does the community rally around the bereaved spouse? Unfortunately no. Often the community consoles the bereaved spouse with words such as “It’s a blessing.” Or, “I know you wouldn’t have wanted him to live much longer.” Or, “He didn’t really have much of a life any more, did he?” “Now you’re free. You’ve been so burdened with caregiving.”

The spouse is denied support when the person with dementia is living and denied support again when the person with dementia is dead. We can and must do better. When someone with dementia dies, the bereaved spouse has still lost a beloved person whose death merits the same compassion any death does.

Lauri Perman, who lived in State College for many years, recently relocated to her native Minnesota, where she has three living sisters. This column is coordinated by, whose mission is to create educational and conversational opportunities for meaningful intergenerational exchanges on loss, grief, growth and transformation.

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