Your gain: Understand what cumulative grief is and why this type of grief is especially difficult to cope with. We’ll also discuss why getting a handle on this kind of grief and coping with it is so important.
What is Cumulative Grief?
Cumulative grief may occur when someone experiences multiple losses either all at once, or before processing an earlier loss. This was so me I can’t even tell you.
Losing two parents back to back, I already knew I hadn’t processed my mom’s death before my dad’s came. My mom died of esophageal cancer in December 2019, and dad died of prostate cancer in July 2020. Just after my mom died, my dad’s health started declining further. The cancer had spread, but moreover, I could tell he simply wasn’t himself after she passed.
He was more melancholy, certainly still sad and grieving, and there was just this palpable aura that things wouldn’t be the same. Honestly, I didn’t really know what to do other than be there as much as I could. And I was.
But I found myself grieving this. Both my mom, and then my dad… before he was even gone. There was 100% some anticipatory grief there. Which, by the way I have an entire post on anticipatory grief which you can access below!
I mourned my dad’s old self as he was mourning his life he had with his wife. His wife that I was mourning, too—just in a different way. And then, my dad’s life here in the physical world came to an end. And then I grieved that—profoundly and deeply.
To have all of this grief and loss cumulate? It was heavy. So heavy. I didn’t know what to do with it all. I felt very lost, and very alone. Even when dad was still alive, but I knew where his fate lied, I realize now I was in a state of denial and numbness with what my reality actually was.
My mom’s death altered my very existence. Not that my dad’s didn’t, but from the morning of my dad’s death and beyond is the point where the cumulative grief really began. When I felt the fibers shifting and the axis on which my life was positioned break—for good.
Can you relate to any of this?
Our Cumulative Emotional Pain Tolerance
When you have experienced multiple losses within a short time period, you may begin to wonder how much more loss you can endure. That was a feeling I was all too familiar with, and I actually still feel that way. I don’t live my life this way, but every so often I can’t help but think about the next shoe to drop, ya know? Finding myself uneasy and dreading the day I may endure another loss.
I worry I might not be able to take my own advice that I give to grievers just like you. Being back to “square one”, so to speak. It’s scary!
Once I lost my dad, I lost my sweet dog less than a year later. She was one of the few—one of the only—things that got me through that trauma in my life. To not have her now, too, was crippling.
Unpacking Each Loss Separately
Experiencing multiple losses can be extremely painful, overwhelming, and it can be difficult to function well and fully on a daily basis because of the gravity of it all.
I once heard this awesome quote that I want to share with you, especially if cumulative grief is something you’re struggling with.
“You have a unique relationship with each person who has died. Therefore, you can’t be expected to lump all your feelings of grief into one box and expect to quickly unpack it all at once. Each individual loss needs to be processed separately. When you experience multiple losses, the feelings are intense and overwhelming.”
Symptoms of Cumulative Grief
Symptoms of cumulative grief can be very intense and long-lasting. You might feel really sad or even a little depressed, or you might be super irritable and angry (often frequently!). You may have trouble sleeping, or you might just want to sleep all day or feel lethargic.
It can also be hard to enjoy things you used to love, and making decisions might seem impossible. Lastly, you might even have physical symptoms like headaches, stomachaches, or chronic pain.
Why Addressing Cumulative Grief is Important
If left unaddressed, cumulative grief can lead to a range of negative emotions, such as sadness, anxiety, anger, and hopelessness. These feelings can become very profound and may even lead to depression or other mental health issues.
In addition to affecting our emotional well-being, cumulative grief can also impact physical health. It can lead to increased stress levels, which can weaken the immune system and make us more susceptible to illness or other discomfort.
For example, I tend to harbor a lot of physical pain in my neck and shoulders, and this was especially bad in my earlier stages of grief. We have to be SO careful with all of this—heart, mind, and body. Please don’t allow this kind of grief to get the best of you! It’s far too important to ignore. Don’t worry, we’re going to get into some coping tools shortly.
I also want to point out that age can increase your risk for cumulative grief. As people reach their 70s, 80s, and 90s, they will begin to experience the deaths of friends and family members at higher rates than in the early part of their lives.
At the same time, these individuals may be experiencing secondary losses of independence, mobility, and even housing they’ve been comfortable in for years (i.e. if they’re now having to move into assisted living). These losses can compound on one another which can cause a great deal of anguish and grief.
Cumulative Loss Over Time
While losses in cumulative grief often happen back to back, it’s important to note that sometimes cumulative grief can occur over the course of a long time. What do I mean by that?
Well, when someone has avoided processing an earlier loss—or life’s circumstances have prevented the mourning of a past loss—a new loss can cause all the feelings of grief to reach a boiling point. Forgotten grief from a loss many years earlier can come back to the surface because of a new loss. It probably goes without saying, but this experience can be disturbing and painful!
Coping Tools for Cumulative Grief
Like the rest of these types of grief, I want to acknowledge—especially having gone through this myself—that sometimes it’s hard to even recognize this in the moment.
I didn’t even really realize this is a kind of grief I had until later. So please, if you’ve taken the time to read this blog post, be sure to take moments out of your day to be present and tap into this. Could losses be building up on you? Think about it…
If you’ve already acknowledged this could or is currently happening, let’s talk about some coping tools really quickly.
Take Care of Your Mental Health
I can’t stress enough how important it is to prioritize self-care when dealing with cumulative grief. This may include:
- Getting enough quality sleep.
- Maintaining a healthy diet (ideally, lean meats and lots of greens! Everything in moderation).
- Exercising regularly (even just a walk, bike ride, or a little weight lifting is a great start).
- Engaging in activities that bring you joy and provide a sense of purpose.
Without going on and on here, remember I have two blog posts that can give you some additional help with this!
I have an entire blog post on 13 ways to relax and calm your mind if you’d like to dig into some great ways to begin healing further.
If you’re in need of support or guidance with getting better sleep, check out my blog post all about this below!
Mindfulness can help you stay present in the moment and is amazing for coping with overwhelming emotions. Consider practicing meditation, yoga, or deep breathing exercises to help you stay grounded.
I have a blog post that dives into this and serves you steps for practicing breathing and being present if you want to explore this further.
Express Your Feelings
I can’t say it enough: it’s so important to express your emotions when dealing with cumulative grief. One way I love to do this is through journaling. Either through free writing just to really let it all out there, or you can even use my prompted Gratitude in Grief Journal Prompt for a more guided journaling practice.
Also, talk to a friend you feel comfortable with. Remember, they don’t need to completely understand your situation or your loss. It’s highly unlikely anyone will truly “get it”, so to speak. But, perhaps find a friend who has been through a similar loss. Or, is simply a great listener! I also encourage you to seek out a community of like-minded people who can relate to your experience, or explore the services of a therapist or couselor (or Grief Coach!) if no one in your friend group provides the kind of support you need.
This is also a great opportunity to explore expressing your feelings through art, reading, or music. Get creative! Have some fun with it and challenge yourself, even. And remember, if you need a little extra help in the gratitude department, I have a blog post on that, too.
Final Thoughts on Cumulative Grief
Now, you’re probably going to curse my name for saying this, but… healing from cumulative grief takes time. It just does. The brain is playing a game of catch up with your reality, and that does take time. When we lose a loved one, it’s a major shock to our system, as you likely already know.
It takes our brain time—sometimes a lot of time—to update its “prediction software” and understand what this new reality of yours now looks and feels like. When we journey through a loss, especially in the early days, it’s constantly having to learn and relearn based on our new, lived experiences.
It’s used to that loved one being able to call you, or walk through the door at 5:30pm when they get home from work. But now, all of the sudden, that stopped. And as far as the brain is concerned, rather immediately! That’s confusing, right? So, we have to allow it the time it needs to get accustomed to what’s happening now, in front of you, day by day.
Be patient with yourself. Don’t rush the process, and allow yourself to feel those emotions without judgment. The cumulation will, slowly, ease up. That pile of bricks on your heart will be taken apart piece by piece, and a more peaceful, fulfilled existence will be soon upon you day by day.
Get Your Freebie!
I have FOUR free tools you can take advantage of if you’re ready to step up your grief work. I’m so excited to share these with you! My Gratitude in Grief Journal Prompt, From Grief to Grinning Toolkit, A Practice in Presence Toolkit, and Creating a Vibrant Life Toolkit are ready and waiting for you to download. All you have to do is click here or the button below.