Multiple losses

— Skylight Trust

Sometimes you may have to manage the effects of several losses at the same time, or within a short period of time. When losses pile up, so does the grief. ​

What can we do when lightning strikes more than once? And again? And again? Whatever a person’s age or stage, grieving several losses at the same time is always extremely stressful, emotionally painful and exhausting. For some it can understandably be, overwhelming.

Multiple losses may occur around the same time, or with little time in between them over a few weeks, months, or years. For example, a person may experience several deaths or serious illnesses of people they care about all within 18 months. Or difficult life situations might occur one after the other, each bringing change and loss. For example, if a child experiences a family break up, moves away to a new town and school, has had to leave their loved pet behind, doesn’t get to see their absent parent, is bullied at their new school, has their new bike stolen from the garage, and then their Grandmother becomes very ill. The grief for such multiple losses, is sometimes termed cumulative grief.

With each new loss, grief can resurface for the previous losses. It can be confusing. As Annie, 32, commented, “Which thing am I grieving for? I thought it was all about my pet who is so sick, but I find my mind is full of grief for an older family member who died recently, for my best friend moving away next month, for breaking up with my partner this year, and for my injury from my car accident last year. I am a grief volcano!”

  • Multiple losses can shake a person’s confidence
  • The world around them can begin to feel more uncertain
  • They can experience the snow-ball effect of each new loss, leaving them feeling like things are increasingly out of control
  • Their level of anxiety commonly increases
  • They might not know who or what to trust anymore
  • As the grief compounds, there is a lot to deal with mentally, emotionally, physically, spiritually and socially
  • And there can also be practical matters that have to be attended to in the wake of all that’s been happening.

The grief process for multiple losses, is inevitably more complex than grief for just one loss. Its intensity can be greater, and it is likely to take more time to work through it. People often use the same kind of coping strategies they’d use for a single loss, but they’re needed for longer. Sometimes, with so much going on, a person won’t have the time or energy to grieve for one or more of the losses. Their grief for them becomes delayed and it’s likely to emerge later, perhaps unexpectedly. For example, if it is triggered by a memory or a new experience. Each loss does need to be acknowledged and grieved for, in its own time. There is no rush. Grief is a healing process.

Living with the grief from several losses can be like walking into a messy, cluttered room to sort it out, and not even knowing where to start. Rather than trying to tackle the whole messy room of loss, ask: What can I deal with today? When dealing with so much, just thinking about one part of the messy room at a time, can help a lot.

Many people report that experiencing multiple losses can feel lonely and isolating. It can be hard to explain to others what it’s like living with so many tangled memories and echoes of sadness all at once. Their grief is complex and demanding. Multiple losses can increase the risk of complicated or prolonged grief, post-traumatic stress, depression and other mental distress, and harmful behaviours, such as misuse of drugs or alcohol. With their bodies holding in so much stress, people are also more likely to pick up viruses and bugs and to have small accidents. It is a time to give extra attention and priority to daily self-care. What things are the most important for health, energy, and well-being?

It is also important to use good and ongoing support from others. No one needs to deal with such big grief alone. A person can look for support from within their circle of friends, family and whānau, and in their community. For example, spending time with a close family member or friend, seeing a counsellor or doctor, joining a support group, or calling a help line during a tough night could all be useful coping strategies to try.

Many people can, and do, come through the experience of grieving multiple losses, well. The road can be a little easier if they understand what grief is, use support, find personal ways to express their grief, take things gently, look after themselves well, and focus on one day at a time.

Resources Available at Skylight

Skylight is here to help you through difficult times. We can assist you in a variety of ways with information appropriate for your situation. You are welcome to visit us and receive free information and a support pack from our resource centre and borrow books from the specialist library. We also facilitate Professional Development training and offer Counselling support services for children, young people, family/whānau and individuals who are experiencing tough times.

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