What Does It Mean to Experience Cumulative Grief?


When you lose someone you love, the emotional pain can sometimes cause old wounds to resurface. It seems as if the current loss can bring up all the other past losses you’ve ever had to suffer through, and adds to your current suffering — ultimately compounding the effects of grief. When this happens, you can end up with an accumulation of emotions that may be too much for you to handle, and it may be difficult for you to move forward.

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If you’ve experienced several losses in a short amount of time, you may be feeling especially overwhelmed with grief. These losses are not always death-related, and most often include other types of trauma that you may not ordinarily consider as such, but can cause emotional suffering just the same.

Those in a caregiver position have their own set of unique challenges to contend with — having to both cope with loss while suppressing difficult and painful emotions. If you’re in this position, you may be feeling emotionally drained and physically depleted. 

Your coping mechanisms may be on overload and you may be experiencing grief fatigue. Suppressed grief doesn’t go away on its own. This type of grief keeps piling up forming complex layers that you'll need to work through in order to heal. All of this falls under the term “cumulative grief.”

What Is Cumulative Grief?

Cumulative grief is the accumulation of unprocessed grief that accrues over time as a result of pain and suffering experienced from past losses and traumatic events. It happens to you when you experience losses in close succession.

Most of the time, you end up being hit by the next event before even having enough time to process the first one. Sometimes suffering through multiple losses in a short amount of time causes grief overload or a sense of not knowing where to start in your grieving process. 

It's normal to feel this way as you work through the stages of grief in your healing journey. There's only so much pain you can deal with before you start feeling that you’ve had enough. With this compounding grief, it’s okay if you are having a hard time coping or not knowing how to console someone who is.

Below you will find the keys to learning what causes cumulative grief, ways in which you can learn to cope with it, and ways in which to ease the symptoms of it.  

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Examples of Cumulative Grief

There are so many different ways in which we grieve. No two people will go through the same experiences or process their losses in the same way. As you learn to navigate through yours, you'll find ways to cope that will help you more than others.

There’s never a right or wrong way to grieve, and there isn't a timeline you must adhere to. As you go through each of the stages of grief, you’ll begin to feel better and better.

The pain never completely goes away. You learn to cope with it and move forward. While learning to cope, you’ll also begin to accept all the changes in your life and develop a new normal way of living. But, death is not always to blame for the losses that you will experience.

There are many other types of traumatic events that happen to us in life. We all share in some common losses — death, divorce, loss of a job, loss of a relationship, loss of a pet, and so on. Although you may not experience every one of these losses, how you deal with the ones that do will determine how they affect your life long-term.

1. Multiple deaths of loved ones

When faced with several losses, it can be difficult to give each one the time needed to grieve. When unprocessed grief accumulates, it may cause you to feel overwhelmed — making it difficult to see past your pain and suffering.

You may feel a sense of not being able to deal with life and may find it difficult to talk to others about what you're experiencing. Because most of us are taught to "be strong" when facing difficult times, we learn to suppress our emotions. This may eventually lead you down a path of self-destruction and despair. 

Some ways of dealing with multiple deaths and losses are to allow yourself time to grieve each one individually and at your own pace. There's no magic solution to dealing with everything that has been thrown at you.

Try taking a step back to inventory all that you have suffered, and allow yourself an expression of grief for each person or event on your list. Consider mourning each one with its own individual grief ritual that makes sense to you. Be careful not to group any one thing or event with another. By allowing yourself to take in one thing at a time, you are making it more manageable for you to process your grief.

2. Divorce

Other types of losses may accrue that aren't related to death and dying. Many people don't consider divorce when they think about loss, grief, and mourning. Yet, divorce is so common within our society, that it affects so many of our lives.

Divorce is a difficult process that can leave you emotionally and financially drained in most cases. The way we deal with divorce is usually through the court system, mandated mediation sessions, or if you're lucky enough, forced into couples therapy. 

When combined with the death of a loved one, it may send you over the tipping point of despair.  There are ways you can deal with the trauma of a divorce to help you manage your grief. You can begin by giving yourself time to breathe and process all of these changes happening in your life.

Dealing with one thing at a time will help you better manage your losses. You can join a support group of people who are going through similar experiences, or you can read books on grief to help you process your own.

3. Loss of career

When you lose your job, career, or source of income, this presents an entirely different level of stress, loss, and anxiety. Not knowing how you'll pay your bills or take care of your family can be very stressful.

Job-related losses are seldom seen the same as experiencing the death of a loved one. And, while they're not the same thing, the grieving process is similar in that for many people, losing their job means losing their identity. When you’ve built your career around a job you love and have to give it up suddenly, it can be very psychologically damaging. 

In addition, most of us rely on our income and when we lose our ability to earn a living, we go through the same stages of grief as with other types of losses. Sometimes you'll experience these types of losses when you're forced to decide between keeping a job you need and love and taking care of a loved one who is sick or dying.

Your grief compounds in this situation by having to process the need to cope with your loved one's failing health and carrying the stress of having given up your job. There is no easy way around this one. Sometimes you must sacrifice certain things in life to help others in need. How you cope with it may be challenging, but realize that everything does and will come to pass.

Coping with Cumulative Grief

Coping with multiple losses can be challenging to accept and process. When this type of grief consumes you, and you feel as if you just can’t take any more of what life throws at you, take a step back from it all and deal with one thing at a time.

This is a simple and effective way of dealing with accrued losses and helping you manage your grief. 

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