Michele's Blog

Parasocial Loss & Grieving

By Michele Scott

The psychological effects of learning a family member, a close friend or someone famous has died can lead to anxiety, depression and paranoia. Following a major loss such as that of a spouse or child, these symptoms are expected and watched for by caregivers. The death of someone they are emotionally attached to in a Parasocial relationship (one-sided relationships with famous people) can lead to similar periods of depression and sadness. In 2018 we saw the death of Anthony Bourdian, Aretha Franklin, Charles Krauthammer, Stephen Hawking, George H.W. Bush and most recently John McCain. These emotional attachments, to someone totally unaware of their existence, can have the same effect as the death of an immediate or extended family member or close friend. For the immobile or bedridden the effects are heightened by ongoing access to media and extended coverage of memorial services and funerals.  Although Parasocial relationships are most common with celebrities, sports figures and television stars, longtime neighbors, organizations, political figures and friends can fall into this category.

In the second half of life, particularly past 55, more loss is experienced. Many of the elderly find themselves attending more funerals and memorial services than births or marriages. Hearing the person you are caring for say: “They are dead and I’m still living”, or “Why am I still here when everyone I know is gone” could be sadness or a symptom of something more serious. If they are glued to the television watching reports and memorials try to draw them away. Suggest an activity, if mobile take them outdoors, read from their favorite book or simply change the channel. Yes, they want to mourn – and mourning is normal, however dwelling on someone’s death when they are absorbed by their own – physically, is mentally unhealthy.

Seniors who find themselves needing 24/7 round-the-clock care need someone to talk to. Yet, they hesitate to talk about death, particularly with Immediate family or the very young. They don’t want to engender grief or sadness - although the latest death adds to a litany of losses they may have suffered. Consider the expansive coverage of the deaths of Aretha Franklin and John McCain. If they were younger than your patient, or your patient is more physically distressed, these deaths will engulf them. Even people in their 40s and 50s can find themselves looking at their lives, question their contributions, and wondering if they are living the life they were meant to live.

“Don’t talk about dying, you’re going to live forever.” Psychologist, therapist and counselors suggest avoiding this phrase when caring for a parent or grandparent. It shuts down any opportunity for open honest communication. Family caregivers need to know what is going on below the surface. Identifying symptoms of a mental or behavioral disorder can be lifesaving.

Our seniors and the elderly know one day they will die. If their spouse, siblings and close friends have died, they are experiencing long-term ongoing loss. When people they admire, musicians whose music they enjoy, movie stars they grew up with and political figures they voted for die, there can be a sense of being left behind. They might see dead family members during waking hours or hear or see loved ones in their dreams. Coping with death is highly individualized and may vary greatly within immediate and extended families. If you are concerned about your loved one’s response to the many death of 2018, seek help. Symptoms of complicated grief are real.