Whenever multiple losses occur either all at once, or in a short time span, dealing with grief becomes complicated. A person mourning a loss in their life will generally feel a normal type of grief that lasts anywhere from six months to a year. However, when there are subsequent losses, or losses that occur one after another, more complicated grief can emerge.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- What Happens When Someone Experiences Multiple Deaths of Loved Ones?
- How Can You Cope With Multiple Losses?
- How Can You Help Others Cope With Multiple Losses?
Learning how to cope with or grieve multiple losses can be challenging for anyone. A person that has experienced several losses all at once may feel tremendously overwhelmed, and They may not know how to handle or get past the pain of their grief.
Grief has the potential to overtake a person to the point where it seems impossible to get through the pain.
What Happens When Someone Experiences Multiple Deaths of Loved Ones?
When you lose several loved ones one after another, your grief compounds into what’s known as cumulative grief. It’s a form of complicated grief that’s experienced over subsequent losses. It can be used to describe situations like when you lose both parents close together, or another similar type of loss. But these losses don’t necessarily have to include the death of a close loved one in order to adversely affect you.
Any grief that’s left unaddressed has the potential to accumulate. Complicated grief over subsequent losses creates cumulative grief that may take years to resolve. When grief hits you from all directions and all at once, it may feel like your world is falling apart around you. It’s not unusual for you to start questioning just how much more loss you can endure before losing it entirely.
How Can You Cope With Multiple Losses?
Unresolved grief doesn't go anywhere. It merely accumulates over time and waits for it to either get resolved or it comes out later. A subsequent death occurring years later, a death anniversary of a past loss, or the anticipation of a future loss can all trigger cumulative grief to rear its ugly head when least expected. These kinds of events all have the potential to trigger suppressed grief reactions.
Experiencing multiple losses is painful and overwhelming, and learning to cope with your grief is essential in getting you through this challenging time in your life. It is also worth recognizing that enduring so many significant losses over a short time span can create grief overload.
1. Compartmentalize each loss
When faced with multiple losses, give each loss its own time and acknowledgment. It's important to assign each relationship with each person who's died its own meaning within your life. Each person is unique, and whether you had a good or bad relationship with them, their death will affect you nonetheless. Each death can have a different meaning and effect on your life.
When they happen all at once, it may seem more straightforward to lump your grief altogether and work through it just one time. It can help you manage dealing with grief and guilt at the same time by encouraging you to honor each loss separately and give each one its own attention. But when you don't give each loss its own individual attention, your grief doesn't go anywhere. It just stays there, unattended and unresolved, waiting for an opportune time to resurface later in life.
2. Process each loss separately
Grieving multiple losses takes time. Don't try and lump all your losses and grief into a massive ball of wax, expecting it to resolve all at once. It would help if you processed each loss individually.
Allow yourself to feel the pain and sorrow of your grief. Whenever you suppress your grief, it tends to boil up inside you waiting to erupt when least expected. Withheld grief can cause physical and mental health issues later on in life if not immediately addressed.
3. Lower your expectations
Don’t expect to get through all of your losses by following any linear grief model or proscribed time for grieving. Placing too much pressure on yourself to get over your grief or move past the pain of your losses will add stress to your already overburdened grief journey.
Give yourself time to heal from your losses. Take the necessary time for your soul’s energy to recharge following each death. Trying to carry on with life as usual before its time can set back your healing progress for several years.
4. Take care of yourself
When suffering through grief, your body undergoes a lot of stress, which can make you ill. One of the most significant risks you’ll face as a result of cumulative grief is the stress of too much pain and suffering coming at you all at once. It would help if you took some time for a little self-care.
Start by setting up an appointment to see your medical professional so that together you can come up with a plan to help you through this tough time in your life. If you’re feeling vulnerable to depression, absolutely consider talking to your doctor about this. They’ll be able to monitor you and check for early warning signs.
5. Face your pain
Although the timing of your losses can and does have a significant impact on your grief experience, not every cumulative loss occurs within a short period. Sometimes it can take years for you to feel the effect of multiple subsequent deaths. Whenever you've pushed back your grief following a loss, and you've failed to address it, losses suffered in the past can resurface with more recent losses in unexpected ways.
You may start to feel that your emotions are intense and overwhelming. You develop a tendency to avoid your pain by remaining in denial, keeping busy, or turning to substance abuse. While substance abuse will numb the pain temporarily, it will complicate and prolong the healing process.
6. Keep your daily routine
Multiple losses can make you feel that your life is suddenly out of whack and that nothing’s as it should be. You may begin to feel an overwhelming feeling of loss of control over your life and everything happening in it.
To maintain a sense of control, stick to your daily routine as much as possible. If you don’t already have a routine, formulate one. Schedule even the most mundane chores and things to do to keep yourself accountable. Doing so can help you get by one day at a time.
How Can You Help Others Cope With Multiple Losses?
Helping others cope with their grief overload from multiple losses can be a bit of a challenge. When someone you know and love experiences loss after loss, it's hard to help them get a handle on their grief. You may not be equipped to handle the severity of their pain and suffering.
You can be of immediate help to them by helping them sort through their primary grief and anxiety. You can help calm any feelings of overwhelm they may be experiencing so that they can survive through those initial moments of distress.
7. Be aware of risk factors
Every time someone suffers a loss, life doesn’t always allow them the needed time to get through their grief before another tragedy strikes. They will not always have the luxury of well-timed losses so that they can heal from one before they move on to the next.
Your loved one may feel overwhelmed, traumatized, and victimized all at once as a result of suffering through multiple losses. You can help them by pointing out possible risk factors to look out for, such as coping with the pain through substance abuse or signs of severe depression.
8. Identify coping mechanisms
When your mind becomes overwhelmed, it kicks into a built-in self-defense mechanism called avoidance for most people. Generally speaking, the mind shuts down to protect you from feeling overwhelmed and taking on more than you can bear. Avoiding reality is sometimes the only thing that carries you from one day to the next.
Help them to identify this as a coping mechanism, but also highlight the importance of working through the losses one by one to mitigate their feelings of overwhelm. Logically and relationally, your mind is telling you that you should be grieving your losses. Still, your defense mechanism is working in hi-gear to avoid dealing with anything that’ll cause you further pain and suffering.
9. Be sensitive to their needs
When faced with loss, you become consumed with grieving in a way that works best for you. Some people may include reaching out to others for help, while others may find it more comforting to retreat into themselves.
Be sensitive to your loved one's choice of grieving and coping style. Allow them to process their grief according to what works best for them and in their timeframe. Avoid pushing them into a grief trajectory that you may be familiar with but is not necessarily in line with how they perceive grief.
10. Consider their age
When helping others cope with their grief, keep in mind that people grieve differently. Age is a contributing factor in how someone will suffer their losses. An aged person in the late stages of life will process grief differently than a younger person. They perceive death and sorrow according to what’s going on in their lives presently.
An older person is more susceptible to face multiple losses as their friends and family begin to die off. They also face isolation and loneliness, more so than a younger person who has a partner, spouse, or other family members around to help support them through their grief. In helping a loved one with combating cumulative grief, consider their age before making suggestions.
How to Cope With Multiple Losses
Surviving the grief of multiple losses is challenging and can take years to recover. Talk to someone you trust about seeking help when your pain and sorrow become too much for you to bear alone. Not every one of your losses will require that you break down each experience into manageable grief nuggets.
If and when they pile up though, your losses can have a snowball effect that may be difficult to escape. Seeking the help you need before your grief incapacitates you is one of the best things you can do to help yourself or others cope with multiple losses.