Telling someone about the death of a friend or a loved one is never easy and is even more challenging when the person to be notified has Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia. Every person experiences grief and bereavement in a different way. Caregivers must take into consideration the person’s cognitive status and extent of the disease, as well as personality and behaviors, to determine the best approach.

If the person is in earlier stages of Alzheimer’s disease, he/she may have an easier time understanding and coping with the loss. While the person may still have periods of forgetfulness and not recall that a loved one has passed away, it is just as likely that he/she will show common reactions associated with loss and bereavement such as shock and sadness and talk about the death during lucid moments. Ways to support the individual include acknowledging his/her emotions and watching for cues as to what may comfort him/her. Perhaps it is reminiscing about past times, or just letting the person know you are there for him/her.

Individuals in later stages of Alzheimer’s disease may not seem to comprehend the loss and may talk about the loved one as if he/she is still alive or confuse a recent bereavement with a past one. This is one reason that some caregivers hesitate to share the news at all. However, withholding information can be just as confusing, particularly if the person who died had visited regularly and now there is a change in routine. The person’s ability to process or display emotions is affected by the decline in cognitive abilities, making grief more complicated. He/she may show behavioral signs of distress such as agitation, anxiety, and restlessness.

Suggestions to help people through the bereavement process include the following:

  • Be patient and responsive to the person’s mood and behaviors.
  • Understand that everyone grieves in their own way.
  • Respond to the emotions underlying the person’s words, such as sadness, anger or confusion. For example: “You sound really sad about her and miss her. I miss her too. What do you miss the most?”
  • If the person forgets about the loss after being told, it is not necessary to keep reminding him/her. But answer questions honestly and clearly.

Each person’s situation is unique, and emotions can change from day to day. The key is to be aware that the grieving process can be complex for someone whose cognitive abilities are compromised.