When I was 27, my mother told me she was dying of ALS, a fatal neurodegenerative disease with no cure. She died the following summer, and not long after, my father was diagnosed with cancer. He successfully completed treatment, but when the cancer returned, he didn’t survive.
From the moment my mother shared her diagnosis and leading up to my father’s funeral, it felt like my head was being held under water. I could only surface for enough air to survive, but not long enough to understand the enormity of what had occurred. Before I could come to terms with one loss, I was experiencing another.
A prior history of grief can affect the current grieving process. One study found people who lost more than one person in a short time still grieved one loss at a time, and that multiple losses affected various aspects of the bereaved individual’s life, like their health, job, and marriage.
This mental health phenomenon is often referred to as cumulative grief. I spoke to five grief experts about cumulative grief, and how to understand and manage the feelings that may arise from it.
What is cumulative grief?
Cumulative grief is the experience of multiple losses. The challenging aspects of grief can be exacerbated with each new loss, according to Litsa Williams, a licensed social worker and co-author of What’s Your Grief: Lists to Help You Through Any Loss, which can lead to fatigue and overwhelm. There is “the emotional piece, but also the other stressors — coping with the practicalities of settling an estate, sorting through belongings, family conflicts, financial strains,” she says via email. It can be hard to face a new loss when you feel like you’re starting at “half capacity.”
Sometimes after multiple losses, support systems are less engaged than they previously were, Williams adds. An additional loss can make a person feel like they need more support at a time when their support system is weaker than it previously was. “Support system burnout is also a real factor. With the first loss or first couple of losses, a person may have received a lot of support from friends and family. But unfortunately, with multiple losses stacking up, support systems can start to become less engaged,” she says.
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