Losing a spouse is traumatic no matter what your age, but for the elderly, the loss is exacerbated. In fact, losing a spouse is perhaps the most emotionally traumatic experience that our elders face.

Imagine what it feels like to lose a spouse who you have been married to for decades. Imagine losing the person you grew up with, raised children with, laughed and cried with, and ultimately, grew old with. Imagine how that feels. It doesn't matter if you had a rocky or a blissful marriage. You traveled your adult life with this person. Now try to imagine what happens when your spouse dies. Just sit with that for a minute.

It's common for the elderly to experience huge changes in personality after the death of a spouse, and often these changes are not the most flattering or gracious in their appearance. Typically there is grumpiness, unhappiness (nothing you do brings a smile), sorrow and even depression, but the one that is the most difficult to understand is the complete lack of gratitude towards you or anyone who is providing care. In fact, there's often downright nastiness and it's a hard pill to swallow. These changes seem to come out of nowhere and no amount of kindness on your part seems to matter. It's frustrating. It's hurtful and for some, it's enough to say, "I've had it. I won't do this anymore." And you know what? It's completely understandable. But before you walk away and throw your hands up in the air, take a little time and try a different tactic.

It will help you to take a step back and put your emotions on hold for a time. It's important that you understand that the lack of gratitude or the grouchy behavior has nothing to do with you. Really…nothing to do with you. So just relax and accept that. You don't have to like this new behavior and you certainly don't have to accept it, but understanding that it's not personal is the first step towards helping to heal it.

Put on a Teflon suit when you are with your mom and let all her comments slide right off you. If she becomes abusive or says hurtful things, don't engage; don't retaliate; don't cry; don't yell – look at her and say, "I love you, Mom" and then leave the room! The easiest thing to do is to engage. Don't do it. This is about setting a personal boundary and making a decision that you will not get into a shouting match with your mother who just lost her spouse.

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Next, take some time and think about how she is feeling. Walking a mile in someone else's shoes often gives us a new perspective. Chances are really good that she's scared – terrified really, and she doesn't know how to express her fear. She acts ungrateful because right now, she not grateful about much of anything. She lost her life partner and she's scared and sad and angry and she's taking it out on you. Knowing this can help you help her to heal. It's a long, slow process but it can be done. Here's what you do:

  1. Sit with your mom quietly and reassure her that you love her and that you will not abandon her. Tell her that you cannot possibly understand how she's feeling, but you would like to try. Give her comfort by letting her know that you lost your dad, too, and you miss him and together you can remember him and share stories. Let her know it's okay to do this.
  2. Ask her if she would like to talk to you or someone (a professional) about her feelings.
  3. Explain that even though you can't replace your dad, you can give her moments of happiness and love, and that you will continue to do that. Reassure her that she won't be completely alone.
  4. Offer to take her to see friends; get out of the house; do something fun and then let it go. She might take you up on your offer or she might yell and say something awful. You will have tried and then you walk away. You don't have to stay for the yelling and lack of gratitude. (It might take some time before your parent is ready to get out and socialize, so if you get shot down, give it some time and then offer again)
  5. Explain to her calmly that although you won't abandon her, you will not stay in the room if she is unkind to you. Tell her that as much as you want to support her and be there for you, you cannot and will not be present if she is not kind and respectful. (This is the time when you make your boundary clear to her.)

If your mother is showing signs of serious depression: sleeping too much; inability to sleep; withdrawing from everything; loss of appetite; lack of personal care; you will want to make an appointment with her doctor or a gerontologist to get a proper medical assessment. Depression is serious and you don't want to ignore these signs.

It takes time to heal and you will have to give her that time. You can help her, but you don't have to take abuse. Fear, loneliness and sorrow are difficult emotions to experience at a young age, but when you are older and in need of care and you lose your spouse, these emotions are heightened and they take over. Understanding the process of what happens is the first step in coping and not turning your back.