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By Rona Barrett | Published on 09.09.2015 9:45 a.m.

During World War II, LIFE magazine first published the haunting oil-painting of a battle-weary soldier staring straight back at us with a detached, unfocused, haunted stare.

That’s where “the 1,000 yard stare” phrase came from.

Then came growing discussions on post-stress, survivor guilt and despondency that survivors suffer in trauma’s aftermath.

This came to mind recently when I realized that so many local seniors with whom I’ve been chatting lately are feeling blue or depressed and can’t figure out why.

They too wear a pained, detached, saddened expression, but theirs is the “why them and not me stare?” Why was it someone else’s time to go and not theirs?

I’ve been feeling helpless to help them. So I looked into the issue further.

I found out that research into the biopsychosocial effects of loss by the aged is in its infancy, but survivor’s guilt is emerging as one of the most widespread and mentally and physically debilitating issues for seniors.

Don’t we all look at the obituary each morning to see if we know anyone who has passed? And if they are younger than us, don’t we wonder to ourselves “why them now and not us?”

Or when some forever-young celebrity we grew up idolizing suddenly succumbs, or when the incomprehensible happens and we lose a close friend, family or a soul mate.

All these tragic events manifest feelings of survivor guilt in seniors.

First, we feel guilty for staying alive while others die, then we wrestle with toxic self-blame that our loved one’s death was somehow our fault, and then we begin to think about the amount of our own remaining time and the coulda-woulda-shouldas of our own lives.

All this talk about death and guilt and saddened seniors is very depressing, isn’t it?

Surviving seniors –– the “forgotten mourners” –– think so, too. That’s why they won’t talk about it.

Instead, they hide their feelings with an, “I’m perfectly fine, don’t worry about me,” stoicism, or worse withdraw into a constantly shrinking world.

Of course, buried feelings always come back to surface. With survivor’s guilt, it’s through symptoms of depression and anxiety that snowball into worsening medical problems, physical ailments and mental health issues.

So, short of becoming a psychotherapist overnight, what can you or I do the next time we interact with a guilty survivor who has that “why me, not them” stare?

Let’s go deeper than “how are you?” Let’s take a few moments to make them feel listened to, understood. Let them know their feelings are valid.

Let’s maintain a connection with them with an occasional call or email.

Let’s remember their special days.

Let’s not let them stagnate. Let’s invite them places and involve them more often.

Let’s ask them directly what we can do to be more supportive.

Let’s show them, not just tell them, they are not alone.

In other words, let’s not let them get away with saying, “Oh, you don’t want to hear about my problems.”

Until next time…keep thinking the good thoughts.

— For more than 30 years, Rona Barrett was a pioneering entertainment reporter, commentator and producer. Since 2000, she has focused her attention and career on the growing crisis of housing and support for our aging population. She is the founder and CEO of the Rona Barrett Foundation, the catalyst behind Santa Ynez Valley’s first affordable senior housing, the Golden Inn & Village. Contact her at[email protected]. The opinions expressed are her own.

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