Monday, February 25, 2013

Coping with Cumulative Losses

[Reviewed and updated April 6, 2024]

A reader writes: I lost my brother to brain cancer five months ago. After the funeral, I headed to my best friend's home (in another state) for our annual visit. Her dad had been in a nursing home for Alzheimer's for the past 7 years. The day that I’d intended to return home was the day that he passed away. So, I stayed for that funeral too. Barely two months later, this same friend’s mother (who for years has been like a second mom to me) suffered complications during surgery and developed a blood infection. I rushed back to my friend’s home and arrived in time to see her mom, although she was in already in a coma. She died two days later. Okay - that's three major deaths within three months. I feel as if I can't breathe. I don't know anyone who this has happened to. Many people have no idea what I'm going through because the deaths of my friend's parents “don't count” for me. People think that I don't have a “right” to grieve these deaths. They aren't my “in-laws” and they aren't technically related to me. Tell that to my broken heart. So, I thought that I would write and see if you could say a few words that might help me.

BTW--my dog is dying of brain cancer. We took her for radiation last summer and the vet says she won't live another six months. Also, my 88-year-old Mom isn't doing very well. My brother calls every week to give me an update but she's going downhill rapidly. Any thoughts on how to deal with all of this?

My response: My dear friend, I'm so very sorry that you've endured so many significant losses over the last few months, including that of your brother and your best friend’s parents – I can only imagine how overwhelmed and traumatized you must feel.

It's not surprising to me that, because you've been hit with one significant loss after another, probably with very little opportunity to process each of them separately and individually, you now find yourself in what I would certainly call a state of "grief overload." Grief is like that -- if it comes at us so frequently that we can't give each death the attention it demands at the time of our loss, it doesn't "go" anywhere, and it doesn't get resolved -- it simply builds and accumulates and waits for us to take care of it. And sooner or later, out it comes, just as if any or all of these losses had happened yesterday. As soon as you are hit with just one more loss, the anniversary of a past loss, or even the anticipation of a future loss (such as that of your own mother, or your beloved family dog who is dying of brain cancer) it is not at all uncommon for that event to trigger all the grief reactions you've been suppressing for a very long time – like the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back.

Please understand that this is not "going out of your mind" or "having a nervous breakdown" -- it is a normal reaction to a very abnormal situation! Also, since your losses have come so close together, I would expect that you are still in a state of shock and disbelief, not even ready to begin the work of grieving. That's not necessarily a bad thing -- denying the reality of what is happening can be nature's way of cushioning all those blows because they are way too much for you to take in all at once, and it's the only way you can continue to function on a daily basis right now. It may seem as if you must take a defensive posture, keeping yourself in a state of heightened alert to guard against the next onslaught of very bad news that surely must be waiting just around the corner. When a sibling dies, for example, it brings home to us that if it can happen to our own brother or sister, then surely it can happen to us, too, or to one of our other siblings.

It's also completely understandable that you would feel the loss of your friend’s parents so deeply. Even though these parents were not your own and did not “belong” to you by blood, it certainly sounds as if you loved them as if they were your own parents. These two deaths ~ as well as the anticipated death of your dog ~ fall into the category of "disenfranchised" losses ~ Dr. Ken Doka's term for those instances in which grief is an entirely natural response to loss and yet, because the losses are not openly acknowledged, socially sanctioned, or publicly shared, the mourner is deprived of the catharsis and relief that shared grief can bring. Unfortunately, as Harold Ivan Smith points out in his lovely little book, When Your Friend Dies, it is also true that the death of a friend is often considered to be a less significant experience than that of a “real” family member. Friends often feel shunted aside or marginalized in the grieving process. They sometimes feel as if they don't have permission to grieve – which can make it even more difficult to come to terms with their loss.

I want you to know that the pain you are feeling is real and worthy of your grief ~ and that includes the anticipated loss of your dog who is dying of brain cancer. We don't grieve deeply for those we do not love. I encourage you to acknowledge the significance of your relationship with each of these individuals, and honor your grief as a measure of the love you felt for your friend’s parents as well as for your brother. I also invite you to read my post, Anticipating the Death of a Cherished Pet.

I sincerely hope that you have someone to talk to about all of this -- a trusted relative, friend, neighbor, clergy person or counselor -- so that when you are ready to take the time to do so, your feelings about each of these losses can be explored, expressed, worked through and released. There are all kinds of resources "out there" in your own community -- you just have to make the effort to pick up your telephone and ask for the help that you need. I encourage you to contact your local hospice organization, mortuary, church or synagogue, or even your local library, and ask what bereavement support services are available in your own city or town -- and if you don't have the energy to do this research yourself, I hope you will ask a friend or a relative to do it for you. As overwhelmed as you feel, you are in need of support, comfort and understanding, and I hope you will think of this as a gift you richly deserve -- one that you can give to yourself.

At the very least, I encourage you to do some reading about grief so you'll have a better sense of what normal grief looks and feels like, as well as what you can do to manage your own reactions. This alone can be very reassuring. If you go to the Links: Bereavement and Loss Sites page on my Grief Healing website and look under the categories labeled Death of a Friend, Death of a Parent and Death of a Sibling, I think you will find some very helpful sources of information.

Please don't underestimate the impact of each of these losses you've endured; any one of them is significant, but when they are cumulative they can lead to a complicated grief reaction. You may be thinking that you "ought to" be able to handle all of this by yourself -- but that just isn't true. Friends and family oftentimes are finished with your grief long before you are finished with your need to talk about it, and unexpressed feelings can become distorted. It is essential that you find an understanding, nonjudgmental listener with whom you can openly acknowledge your feelings and experiences, express and work through your pain, and come to terms with each of these losses. If friends and family aren't as available as you need them to be, or if your need exceeds their capacity to help, please consider seeking help from the other sources I've suggested. No one can take away your pain, but you certainly do not have to bear it all alone. Support for grief is all around you, and all you have to do is reach out and ask for it!

You have my deepest sympathy at the loss of your brother and both parents of your dear friend, and I send you my sincere condolences.

Your feedback is welcome! Please feel free to leave a comment or a question, or share a tip, a related article or a resource of your own in the Comments section below. If you’d like Grief Healing Blog updates delivered right to your inbox, you’re cordially invited to subscribe to our weekly Grief Healing NewsletterSign up here

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© by Marty Tousley, RN, MS, FT, BC-TMH


  1. Dear Grieving, Do not let anyone tell you how to grieve or that your reactions are not appropriate because some of the people you lost were not, technically, related to you. This is preposterous! People telling you that you can't grieve for people who are not related to you simply don't understand grief and probably have not experienced it. I, too, have lost 3 in 5 months. It does feel like an overload of pain. I am so glad that wrote. Those of us who know grief do understand and care. I hope you can take advantage of a grief support group or seek help through your church. What you are feeling is very real and very painful. You will get through this, but seeking help is the best way to go. I am sorry you have to go through the same awful stuff I have been going through. I wouldn't wish this pain on anyone else. Take care, my friend.

  2. My goodness, so much loss again and again. I think when we are suffering it is a very lonely experience b/c really, no one knows exactly what we feel and we want them to know. Few even come remotely close.

    I'm sorry for it all. It is a tidal wave of grieve for you but I suspect you will come through it all b/c clearly, you knew how to reach out here. That is key. That in itself at least gives one a map to begin the journey of grief.

    Here, I don't think Marty would mind that I add this post to give to people who downplay your pain.

    I hope you stop by and tell us how you are managing during this awful time.


  3. I'm sorry for your losses. I as well had grief overload, with 4 in 12 months. It was difficult to begin the healing journey, but throughout the journey I began to feel better. I have a greater appreciation for life and respect for one's own personal grief. No one should tell you what you can and can not think. Create a safe circle of support and use all the resources you can find. Blessings


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