Monday, April 25, 2016

In Grief: Coping with Multiple Losses

[Reviewed and updated April 6, 2024]

You don't think you'll live past it, and you don't really. The person you were is gone, but the half of you that's still alive wakes up one day and takes over again.  ~ Barbara Kingsolver

A reader writes: Over the past 3 years I've lost four close friends to various types of cancer. It's been hard for me to deal with this adversity, but I have an especially difficult time with the fact that when someone dies I feel very sad about them dying and then if someone else dies, the more recent death seems to consume me and I forget just how painful losing my other friend was. I want to remember all of my friends so I feel guilty for letting the pain associated with their death leave me to be replaced by another. Is this typical for someone like me? Just wondered. Thanks.

My response: My dear, I’m so sorry to learn of all the losses you’ve endured over the last three years. It seems to me that this feeling you describe of being “consumed” by the most recent death you’ve experienced is completely understandable, since facing all four of these losses all at once could be overwhelming.

 I’m reminded of a passage in Jerry Sittser’s beautiful book, A Grace Disguised: How the Soul Grows through Loss. In one horrific moment, this man lost his wife, his mother and his 14-year old daughter. They were killed instantly when the van he was driving was struck head-on by a drunk driver. He too struggled with mourning multiple losses. He writes,
I learned early on that I did not even have the luxury or convenience of mourning the loss of my loved ones as a group. Instead, I had to mourn them as separate individuals. As my grief over one loss would subside, grief over another would emerge. If it was not one birthday I wanted to celebrate, it was another. If one piece of music awakened sorrow for Lynda, another would awaken sorrow for Diana or my mother. I had to face what felt like one wave of sorrow after another. I could not get away from it, no matter what I tried. The pain was relentless, like midday heat in the Sahara (p. 45).
What is more, life is full of losses, and any given loss will engender many secondary losses. In this excerpt from her book, The Infinite Thread: Healing Relationships Beyond Loss, psychotherapist and author Alexandra Kennedy explains:
Over a lifetime we will experience many losses. We live by losing, leaving and letting go. These are essential parts of the ever-changing world, as much a part of life as night, wind and rain. We cannot save ourselves, nor those we love, from the sorrow that is part of life. Parents die, friends drop away, cherished possessions are lost. Our children grow up and leave home. We lose spouses and partners to divorce or death; sometimes we lose them emotionally long before. As we age, we will confront all that we never were or never will be. We will be faced with the grief of unfulfilled dreams. With each major loss, we often encounter multiple losses. For example, the death of a parent can lead to many other losses-- of our identity as their child, of our family history, and sometimes of friends as they retreat from the intensity of our grief. Losing a job can lead to the loss of self-confidence, identity, and power. A miscarriage or infertility can bring about the loss of the dream of having a family. A divorce can result in the loss of a lifestyle, home, friends, and identity. [To read more, see Healing Daily Losses.]
In her helpful article, ENOUGH ALREADY! (Dealing with Multiple Losses) Carol Hackney offers several suggestions for coping, which are summarized here:
  • Be patient with yourself; as you address all the changes you’re facing, one step at a time.
  • Practice good self-care: pay attention to your needs for sufficient rest, exercise, nutrition and hydration.
  • Avoid negative thinking: the notion that somehow this is well-deserved punishment for whatever you did or failed to do.
  • Recognize that feeling overwhelmed is a normal, human reaction, but with support you will get through this and you will survive it.
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