Dealing with more than one loss

6 min read

How to cope with cumulative grief

  • Accepting your feelings as they are and processing them fully is always most important

  • It is common to feel like you are cursed or being punished, but try to let go of this negative and harmful interpretation.

  • You cannot grieve multiple losses together; each one needs to be felt separately.

  • Even if the losses were far apart in time, you may feel the first more intensely now. This can indicate unprocessed feelings, and is a good thing in the long run.

  • Above all, be patient with and kind to yourself and let the feelings run their course.

The process of grieving for more than one person can be extremely painful and emotionally confusing. Coping with one loss is difficult enough. When you experience more than one—simultaneously, in rapid succession, or even years apart—the cumulative grief can feel unbearable. But you are stronger than you realize, and you are going to get through this.

Grieving is a long process, but it does get easier. The first step to lessening your pain is to accept your grief as it is, accept the complex way you are feeling, and give yourself all the space and time you need to process these compounded losses without self-judgment. The process is hard enough already without feeling like you are supposed to be doing it in a certain way, so try to let go of these expectations.

When you suffer more than one loss, it is common to question why this is happening to you, or even interpret it as a punishment or curse, when in reality it is simply a terribly timed misfortune. Though it may feel difficult not to assign meaning to the tragedy of multiple loss, understanding that it is not a personal attack on you is an important step on the way to healing. As difficult as it is to come to grips with, death is also a fact of life.

The process and intensity of your grief for each of the people who have passed away may be varied, and that is completely normal. Your relationship with each of them was special and unique, and so your experience of grieving for each of them will certainly feel different. In fact, you will not be able to grieve for all of them at the same time. Multiple griefs simply cannot be felt at once, as tempting as it may seem to want to roll all of your pain up into a big ball and feel it all together. Each grief needs its own mind space and its own time.

Mourning each loss

Yes, the feelings of loss are intense and overwhelming right now, but the only way out is through, and each of these losses must be felt and processed separately. And it is no use to try to decide when you’ll be grieving for which loss; grief follows its own schedule, and your job is only to feel as completely as possible whatever you are feeling right now, including which of the griefs is manifesting for you at this moment. The other one will come when this one has taken its course.

Some people tend to feel guilty for not being able to fully grieve one loved one because they are still mourning another. There is the emotional challenge of only feeling one of the griefs at a time, but it also often has logistical repercussions as well, such when someone doesn’t feel capable of attending another funeral when they are still reeling from the first. These are challenging situations, and it’s easy to blame ourselves for them, leading to feelings of guilt and shame. But again, it is useful to remind yourself that you are not at fault for feeling your feelings, and judging them only prevents you from grieving as fully as you can. No matter what it takes, you deserve whatever you need to process each loss on its own terms. 

Losses across time

Although some people experience multiple losses at once, or in quick succession, others may feel a sense of cumulative grief over a wide span of time. In this case, both griefs still need to be experienced fully, no matter how much time has passed.

You may find that you are feeling the older loss more intensely than the more recent one. This may make you feel guilty—someone you love has just passed away and you’re thinking of someone else instead. But this is also very normal; it often means that, consciously or not, you may have repressed some of your feelings when grieving over the first death, and those unfelt emotions are getting triggered by this newer loss.

Grief is a long process, and even if it is years between losses, the effect may still be a compound one.

This can be especially overwhelming because you may have felt like you were doing OK emotionally, only to be blindsided by unprocessed pain from the past. But this is actually a good thing: You weren’t prepared back then to deal with the way you were feeling, but you’ve grown and are now able to handle it. This new loss has given you the opportunity to complete a long-suspended process, which will also give you the tools to help you get through the more recent loss, once you’re ready to feel that newer grief.

In some cases, cumulative losses work the other way around: You may have felt the first one so intensely that you experience “grief overload” when someone else passes away. This overload may express itself as a feeling of numbness and defeat, an inability to grieve for or even comprehend the newer loss. As always, it is important to remember that your grief will come when it needs to and when you are ready for it, and try not to feel guilty or pressured to grieve in a certain way.

Sometimes such grief overload leads to feelings that seem unmanageable or that cause you to shut down. This might manifest in a loss of energy, appetite, concentration, or interest in activities you used to enjoy, resembling the physical and mental fatigue of depression. In the short term, these may be considered normal symptoms of immediate grief. The body is processing trauma, and it just needs rest and care. However, it is important to be aware of avoidant coping behaviors you might be falling into. Spending days watching TV, self-isolating, or using substances or alcohol might feel like appropriate coping mechanisms, but be mindful of whether they are helping or hurting you in the long run.

Finding ways to cope

No matter how your cumulative grief is expressing itself, try to develop positive coping strategies that can help you express your grief. You might find that different outlets are needed for each distinct loss you are mourning. On your path to healing, you will have to find ways to process each loss individually. This might feel impossible, especially with multiple simultaneous losses, but you will get there; human beings are incredibly strong and resilient. We experience massive pain and trauma, but we also are capable of great healing and growth. 

Every person’s emotional makeup is unique, and everyone processes grief differently. Remember that grief has no deadline. No matter what, be very patient with yourself. You are managing a lot. Of course, there will be moments when you need to be alone, but remember that your friends and family are there for you at this time. Take breaks, reach out, and ask a friend for help when you need it—even with simple things like accompanying you on a grocery run.

Finally, honor the emotional work you are doing every day, and treat yourself with understanding. Processing compound grief is so painful, but it is not forever. There is always light at the end of the tunnel of grief, and you will emerge much stronger than before ●