Bereavement Overload: Coping with Cumulative Grief and Multiple Losses

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The Psychology
8 min read

Bereavement Overload: Coping with Cumulative Grief and Multiple Losses

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Words by:

Dani Hart

Illustration by:

Dani Hart

Words by:

Dani Hart

Illustrator:

Dani Hart

Contents

As my mom and I walked through the woods in frigid temperatures, we began to chat about the loved ones we’ve lost throughout the last years.

The past few years haven’t been easy.

After falling in love with her boyfriend Gary, my mom watched him crash his motorcycle right in front of her. She was the first responder to the accident and supported him in the hospital in the long months that followed.

Then, the other shoe dropped. Months later, her healthy mother had a stroke, leaving her unable to use half of her body and instantly restricted to a nursing home bed.

She tried to take care of both Gary and her mother, but after years of daily visits to her mother’s bedside and weekly visits to Gary’s bedside, Gary passed away.

“While I missed him and the relationship we had together, I felt a sense of relief because I knew that he was no longer suffering. The love I felt for him will always be with me, and I’m so grateful for the time we had together. I always knew he was with me in spirit.”

Compartmentalizing Grief & Grief Overload

After Gary passed away, she felt numb.

She continued putting on a smile, showing up every day and being strong for her mother who was slowly losing life.

“I wasn’t feeling, I just kept going. It wasn’t until I met a new guy that I actually started dealing with some of it. I finally felt happy, and when I felt happy, I opened up to my emotions. Then it was like a floodgate of emotions, including bad emotions. I would go out with him and be happy, then go home and cry my eyes out.”

She spent the next few years alongside her mom, taking care of her needs and putting on a front to give her mom the best possible life for the time she had left on this earth.

“My mother gave me the best life she could, and I knew I had to give her that in return.”

Last winter, we knew that my grandmother was nearing the end of her life.

She lost weight, stopped getting out of bed, began eating less, and everything slowed down.

My mom never stopped being strong for her mother until the day she died in January 2019.

Even after my grandmother passed away, my mom helped with the logistics, planned the memorial service, and accumulated all of my grandmother’s belongings at her house to help clear out the nursing home.

The Body Keeps Score: Complicated Grief

Shortly after my grandmother passed away, my mom’s sciatic nerve started causing her severe back pain.

I brought up my mom’s case with an orthopedic physical therapist and they shared seeing an uptick in caregiver health issues when they’re taken out of the caregiver role.

In essence, this professional was sharing that our bodies have the ability to disregard feeling pain while taking care of others – a version of disenfranchised grief.

This made sense, though unfortunately, it left my mom in excruciating pain and bedridden for days.

  • Had years of disregarding her own body and compartmentalizing grief finally caught up with her?
  • Was her body now telling her she had to deal with everything she was keeping bottled up to stay strong for her mom?

“In order to change, people need to become aware of their sensations and the way that their bodies interact with the world around them. Physical self-awareness is the first step in releasing the tyranny of the past.” ― Bessel A. van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score

What Is Cumulative Grief?

While the ideal way to cope with different types of grief is to express the emotions that come with bereavement, it’s common to avoid the emotions and suppress grief from showing its true colors.

When someone encounters one loss after another, unaddressed grief can compound into what’s known as cumulative grief or cumulative losses. It’s overwhelming, challenging, and can feel as though life is crumbling to pieces in every direction.

Cumulative grief is something that can accumulate over the years or even decades, and seriously affect your physical and mental health.

There’s no timetable for how long someone can grieve a loss and if someone never addresses the loss of a loved one, they walk around with suppressed emotions which are left bottled up inside, waiting to be released.

Trust me, I've had the personal experience and watched my mom go through this challenging grieving process.

Examples of Multiple Losses a Person Can Face

Cumulative grief doesn’t have a perfect equation.

There’s no way to calculate exactly how much someone should feel when they encounter different losses in their life.

Instead, it’s important to consider all the different types of losses in life and how those might impact the way we grieve.

Below are a few examples, but keep in mind that cumulative grief may also be a combination of the examples below.

Multiple losses of several loved ones in a short period of time.

Whether it’s a grandmother and grandfather passing away shortly after one another or a tragic event that takes away many loved ones in a matter of seconds, experiencing multiple losses of several loved ones is one common form of cumulative grief as they now must being grieving multiple losses.

When it rains it pours, and coping with multiple losses is something that many people are doing right now in the United States.

Loss of multiple pets.

The death of a pet, just like the loss of any human relationship, comes with its own unique characteristics.

Pets are a huge part of their owners’ lives, and their absence often results in a broken heart. Losing a pet or multiple pets in a short period of time can create a void in people’s lives, magnifying grief from all walks of life.

Other losses (not involving a death of a loved one) that can add up.

There are also other types of losses that don’t involve death to consider when it comes to cumulative grief.

Whether someone loses their job, loses their home, goes through a breakup or experiences an “empty nest” for the first time, these life changes can be cause for an accumulation of grief.

Grief from a death is only one type of grief, after all, and each version merits its own emotional support through the specific grief process.

Collective grief and losses.

Collective grief and losses are those like what we seeing happening on the news, with Black Lives Matter and people like George Floyd or Breonna Taylor.

View this post on Instagram:

Today would have been #BreonnaTaylor’s 27th birthday. Please follow the link in bio and read what you can do to honor her life. Please spread the word and take action. Image by @arielsinhaha. #SayHerName 🖤

A post shared by Eterneva ♾ Ashes To Diamonds (@eterneva) on Jun 5, 2020 at 6:32am PDT

  • These deaths shock us.
  • They upset us.
  • They instill fear in us.
  • They cause us to lose trust and respect in systems meant to keep us safe.

Overtime, this collective grief becomes cumulative. Some describe it as a straw that breaks a camel's back. There will be one that truly becomes one too many, as we have seen, and people will take to the streets.

This, too, is grief. Demanding justice is grief –– and a legacy project in and of itself. After all, you cannot bring their lives back. You can only work to change the systems that took them.

View this post on Instagram:

There is no going back to “normal”. It’s going towards a society that truly respects, supports, and celebrates all of our differences. ⁣🌈🤎🖤⁣⁠ ⁠ (Quote from @femalecollective)⁠

A post shared by Eterneva ♾ Ashes To Diamonds (@eterneva) on Jun 17, 2020 at 9:17am PDT

Coping with Cumulative Grief

When life hits hard, sometimes the only option through the difficult time is to just get through it. Get through the next minute, the next hour, the next day, the next week, etc. You will get through it. It will take time to find a new normal, but it will come.

While dealing with the full swing of emotions grief brings isn’t something we always have time for in our busy lives, when we don’t address our losses we allow grief to accumulate and overwhelm us down the road.

However, there’s an option to work through the emotions and gather a deeper meaning of the losses starting today.

Before we get into the recommendations for coping with multiple losses, remember that every person’s journey is different and you’re allowed to feel however you feel.

You are experiencing something we all experience―life and death.

These recommendations are to help guide you as you navigate uncertainty and begin to feel the true depths of grief. It may get worse before it gets better, but it will get better.

Realize each loss must be grieved individually.

The first step to begin working through the monstrous accumulation of grief is to acknowledge that it will take time, patience, and some unraveling.

Every relationship is different. The love and memories shared between partners, best friends, parents of pets are as unique as accompanying grief when one part of the relationship is lost.

“Dealing with all of these memories of loss may seem like an impossibility. That is because we have been taught our entire lives to suppress our feelings of loss, rather than to deal with them. They cannot all be dealt with at once. It’s a bit like the old question: ‘How do you eat an elephant?’ The answer to this is: ‘One bite at a time!’ That is how you can effectively deal with your many losses as well: one at a time.” –– Grief Recovery Method

What you can do:

Creating space to process each individual death and celebrate each life is something that will allow for clearing out the messiness of cumulative grief.

To start, recognize each life you’ve lost. Write down their names and memories you remember from their life.

  • What did they do to make you laugh?
  • What were their strengths?
  • What do you wish you could say to them right now?

Take the time to address every loss.

Be mindful of your thoughts, emotions, body & environment.

The emotional response to the loss of a loved one sends individuals into a severe state of stress. A surge of stress hormones is released into the bloodstream, sending the body into shock. The intensity and duration of symptoms depends on the individual body’s response to these stress hormones.

Being mindful means being aware of what’s going on during this process. It can be both bringing attention to what’s happening internally―thoughts, feelings, breath, tension, or pain―and to what’s happening in the world externally.

Bringing attention to what’s happening internally can help to recognize and label strong emotions for what they are―an always changing feeling that will pass. Inquiring about the sensations throughout the body, such as pain, can also uncover how those emotions are affecting the physical body.

Being mindful of thought patterns can help to recognize when thoughts are going down a dark hole and stop them in their tracks.

If bringing attention internally becomes overwhelming, that’s okay. Moving this awareness to the outside world can help anyone live in the present moment, even if it’s for one simple breath.

What you can do:

To practice being mindful of what’s going on inside of your body and mind, start with a slow deep breath and then walk yourself through the following questions:

  • Can I feel the air moving in and out of my body?
  • Am I holding tension anywhere in my body?
  • What are my thoughts? Can I find something more positive to replace these with?
  • Am I dwelling in the past? Can I focus instead on the present?

To increase an awareness of the world around you, walk yourself through the following questions:

  • What do I see around me?
  • What do I smell?
  • What do I hear?
  • What is the furthest sound I can hear?

Whenever grief becomes overwhelming, return to your breath and allow it to guide you through life. Come back to your breath often and if you’d like extra guidance, try downloading and listening to guided meditations on the free app InsightTimer.

Talk to trusted friends or family.

By suppressing grief or experiencing multiple losses all at once, it’s common to feel numb and go about life in a fog.

This leaves many people unintentionally isolating themselves by telling people they are “OK” as they don’t believe there’s another option.

When losses add up, it’s important to have a support system and people to talk to like supportive, close friends and family, all while steering clear of people who tell them to “get over it.”

What you can do:

Find your closest friend or family member and let them know you want to begin unraveling the accumulated grief you’ve experienced. Share with them the individual lives you’re grieving and ask for their support as you navigate a time you know will bring up intense waves of emotions.

If you find that a friend or family member is guiding you to avoid your feelings, remember that it’s perfectly fine to set up boundaries that allow you to feel whatever you’re feeling. If that means finding another friend or family member to help support you, so be it.

Join a support group.

During this time of loss, people can feel lonely, lost, and unsure of what should happen next. However, it doesn’t have to be this way. There are support groups that bring people going through loss together to work through the pain of loss.

With groups available across the U.S., GriefShare is a friendly, caring group of people who will walk alongside someone through one of life’s most difficult experiences. GriefShare groups meet weekly to help individuals face these challenges and move toward rebuilding their lives.

Each GriefShare session has three distinct elements: video seminar with experts, support group discussion with focus, and personal study and reflection.

“Going to GriefShare feels like having warm arms wrapped around you when you’re shivering.”

What you can do:

Locate your closest GriefShare group or another grief support group local to your area and begin attending the GriefShare group at any session.

Each session is “self-contained,” so you do not have to attend in sequence. You will find encouragement and help whenever you begin. You will be able to continue with GriefShare through the next 13-week cycle and view any of the videos you have not seen during that time.

Hire professional help.

Sometimes when individuals experience loss, especially multiple losses at once, it can be difficult to navigate alone what should be done and how life can continue in such a chaotic state.

Finding professional help with a grief counselor or therapist is a great option for those experiencing cumulative grief.

Not only will this person be an unbiased person to share the experience with, but they are also highly trained to help get people through this challenging part of life.

What you can do:

If you have a therapist you already work with, schedule an appointment with them to discuss the loss you’re facing and let them know that you’d like to address your grief with their help and support.

If you don’t have a therapist, you can locate a specialist in your location or ask a trusted friend or family member for a recommendation. Remember to consider a specialist that focuses on grief.

Take time for yourself. Self care is important.

One of the easiest things to do during bereavement is to deny self care. However, at this point, it's one of the most important things a person can do to help get through the otherwise impossible time.

Self care can come in many forms and finding the right type will depend on what the individual enjoys and can help them relax.

However, the basics of drinking water to stay hydrated, eating healthy food to ensure the body has nutrients, getting 7-8 hours of sleep, and moving the body to stay healthy should be addressed first.

Then, as the basics are covered, self care may look like:

  • Spending time with friends and family
  • Getting a massage to help release tension
  • Traveling to an old favorite place or somewhere completely new
  • Creating art―painting, drawing, making jewelry, etc.
  • Playing, singing, or listening to music
  • Renovating a part of your home
  • Going to the theatre
  • Walking, hiking, or climbing in nature
  • Writing or journaling
  • Sweating in a sauna
  • Reading
  • Meditating

What you can do:

Know that whatever you choose to do for your self-care is okay, as long as you’re not relying on drugs and alcohol as part of your self care. What may work for you may not work for someone else, and vice versa.

Take time to think about what you enjoy most or simply try a few different options to learn for yourself what feels good during this time.

Schedule at least a weekly self-care time where you check in with yourself and do something that helps you relax. If you can work self-care into your daily routine, even better!

Conclusion: Fast Forward to Today

Coming back to our walk in the woods, my mom is now getting out, trying new things, and shedding the protective shield she had built around her in order to get through really challenging years.

Since my grandmother passed, my mom now finally feels like she can deal with the grief that she had been bottling up inside.

She practices mindfulness, brings awareness to her emotions and allows herself patience to sit through discomfort.

She sets boundaries for herself, including letting others know that she’s working through grief at her own pace and appreciates their patience with her. She spends less time with people that tell her to “get over it” and seeks companionship with others who accept her exactly as she is.

As a family, we talk about those we lost and how they have shaped us into the people we are today.

We share memories from people we’ve lost decades ago as well as recent losses. We give hugs, let tears flow, and appreciate life more now than we ever have.

We take walks in nature to walk alongside each other… breathing fresh air, moving our bodies, becoming grounded, and learning from our ever-changing environment.

“We’re all going to go through it. We’re all going to lose someone, whether it’s tragic or a welcomed part of life.”

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