Multiple losses: How to Cope with Loss & Change

Multiple LossesWhen I first started facilitating bereavement groups, I sort of assumed that people would be coming for help for “just” one loss. Of course one loss is more than enough…it’s already too much. Yet so many grievers I met were experiencing multiple losses.

And while in most of my writings the word “loss” pertains only to the physical loss of a person, for the sake of this piece I’m going to discuss all types of losses. Because let’s face it, as hard as the tangible loss of a loved one is, so can the other losses we experience in life add up and tear us down just as swiftly.

Here are a few examples of the multiple losses a griever can face:

1. Divorce: Talk about not fair. Life is hard enough. Divorce is hard enough. And then the significant loss of a loved one as well? Whether you are in the middle of a divorce or trying to rebuild a life after a recent divorce has been finalized, the death of a loved can shake an already unsturdy foundation. How to get back on your feet when you haven’t even found your footing yet or don’t even know where you’re supposed to stand?

2. Loss of home: This can happen in a number of ways. Often it will be a child who is caring for a parent in the home. They’ve been doing it for years so they gave up their home and moved in to take care of Mom or Dad. So what happens when their loved one is gone? Siblings may come in and say that Mom and Dad’s house needs to be sold for the distribution of the estate. In other cases, following the loss of a spouse, a widow or widower may find they can’t take care of the house on their own, or can’t afford to keep it without their loved one’s income. So in the midst of losing someone so dear and so loved, the griever is also having to figure out…where do I go from here, and where am I supposed to live?

3. Death of a pet: Something interesting always happens when people talk about the death of a pet, especially in the walls of a bereavement group. As everyone goes around, introduces themselves and talks about who they lost, there may come a point where a griever will say, “I’m here because I lost my spouse in February. But just this last month I lost our dog too.” They often cry, sometimes very hard, and this is usually followed by an apology, “I’m sorry, I know it’s just a dog. It may sound so crazy when we’re here talking about all these other losses”. What’s not crazy is how many people quickly chime in and say, “it’s not crazy!” as everyone can agree that losing a pet is a very big and very significant loss. I find the people who lose a spouse can be hit sort of extra hard by this loss. Usually because it’s another “person” they shared the house with who is no longer there. Often because the pet was part of the family unit, something they shared with their spouse…another connection that’s now gone too.

4. Empty Nest: It’s incredibly hard to lose a spouse at a young age. Most of the young grievers I meet turn their time, love, and attention to their kids. But eventually it’s time for them to move out of the house, and then what? This can apply also to anyone who took care of a parent. Following the loss of a parent, there may still be their children to care for, but once their children are out of the house? A caregiver is simply lost without a person to care for and these multiple losses can mean a double hit on the griever’s sense of purpose and identity.

5. Loss of job/Retirement: People are amazing. If there is one thing I have learned in working in this field is just how amazing people are. I don’t care what it says on the news, I see real life examples every day of people giving up their lives to take care of the people they love. It happens all the time. Sometimes this can mean walking away from a job to be more available to care for an ailing loved one. It can mean passing on a promotion, or an opportunity for growth for fear it will take the caregiver away from home more often. Of course there are times that job loss is not a choice and if this happens after a loss, the griever can be left feeling like they just don’t know what to do with themselves. While our jobs are most often a means to afford the things we need, they are just as likely to be a source of our pride and identity too. A place where we can be someone other than “just” wife, mother and daughter. If we’ve retired from a career, and then lost a spouse soon after,  it can also mean more hours home alone with no place to go. Finally, the loss of a job can quite simply mean a loss of income. And when grieving the loss of a loved one, who has the mental energy it takes to be job hunting or starting something new?

6. Multiple losses of several loved ones, all within a relatively short period of time: And finally, the sad truth. Of all the multiple losses a person can experience or bring to discuss in a bereavement group, this is the one that I hear most often. Whether it’s the multiple losses of a parent, child, spouse, sibling or friend, there is no good combination and no easy way to cope with so much death. People who are losing their loved ones so close together start to feel like everyone around them is fragile. It becomes easy to lose faith that things could be okay, and it’s just too hard to pick up the pieces again when so many of the people we would normally turn to for support are the ones we have lost.

And now, the “now what?”. In previous writings I have discussed why grief is so hard and why it lasts so long, and that’s because so often I find  grievers come to a support group and say, “I don’t know why I’m having such a hard time”.

My answer?

This.

This is the reason you’re having a hard time. Because it’s just so much, and a person can only deal with so much. Not only are you dealing with one major life event, you’ve had several others thrown at you all at the same time.

And the one thing these multiple losses have in common? Change…and for most there’s really nothing harder to deal with than that. Especially when it’s a change we didn’t want and didn’t ask for.

The key to coping with so much loss and so much change is to try and simplify. I often explain grief as one big messy ball of emotion. Just one big ugly feeling of “ugh”, where nothing feels good and with so much going on you can’t possibly know where to start coping.

Think of a messy and cluttered room. Picture the messiest and most cluttered room you could ever imagine- every corner and every part of that room filled and overflowing with books and papers and mail and boxes and clothes and shoes and hangers and laundry and sheets and blankets…just covering every inch of the floor, bed, dressers and shelves.

If you walked into a room like that, and you knew it was your job to clean it, most likely the first thing you would think is,”I don’t even know where to start”.

Coping with the multiple losses in our life can feel much the same way, and the solution for both is the same. Don’t look at the whole room all at once. Because if we look at the whole thing it can be totally overwhelming, and instantly exhausting. A lot of people walk into a room like that and feel that there’s no point in even trying to clean it…that they could never do it all, or that they don’t have what it takes. So instead, we need to focus on one small area, and take care of just one task at a time. Each one of these losses and life changes deserves its own time and attention of mourning and reflection. When feeling sad and overwhelmed by it all, rather than looking at the whole messy room, think: what can I deal with today?

If we’re going to try to ease the symptoms we need to find the cause. Anyone who has kids knows what’s it like when they complain of “not feeling good”. And what’s the first thing we do? Ask a lot of questions. “Does your head hurt? Is it your belly? Do you have a sore throat?”. We need to get to the bottom of specifically what’s bothering them if we’re going to even begin to know how to help or treat the symptoms.

Approach coping with multiple losses the same way. If today you’re feeling extra sad about the divorce – call your close friend who has just gone through a divorce herself, and plan a dinner out together. Having a hard time after retirement? Start looking into those volunteer opportunities you always wished you’d have the time to do. Suffering with the empty nest? Call the kids, or even better, plan a visit. If you’ve lost a pet? Find a shelter or rescue that could use a loving person to walk dogs. And if you’re dealing with multiple losses of loved ones? Give each of those losses their own time and acknowledgment. Find a way to honor them or remember them individually. Try not to lump all of the pain together as it may only serve to minimize the importance that each individual person played in your life.

And return to the idea of the messy room. Walk in slowly. Sit down, take your time and focus on one section at a time. You can only deal with what’s right in front of you. Don’t try and tackle it all at once and try not to let the size of the grief stop you from managing it.

Coping with multiple losses can be overwhelming. When dealing with so much, sometimes the only way to move forward is to truly face each issue, like each section of that room, one at a time…

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Because multiple losses can be so common, we have created a forum specifically for those grievers who are coping with so much. You will find it here, along with the only people who can truly understand what you are going through.

Join us today.

13 thoughts on “Multiple losses: How to Cope with Loss & Change”

  1. This is me?
    Suddenly lost my husband of 21 years to a stroke. A month later my Dog of 10 yrs passed, now 16 months later my grandson burn 2 weeks after my husband passed has died. I had to find a new job with health ins. They asked me to do illegal things, now 3 jobs later all in 16 months. Now I am sending both my daughters off to college. Can’t even imagine being totally alone. I can’t stop crying. Anxiety attacks often with no meds. As I didn’t have ins. Oh yea, I was just served papers I am being sued over a loan my husband only had.
    Yes, this is my past 16 months.
    Both my parents have passed, no sisters, and no support or compassion from my brothers.
    Life is a blessing, but lately, don’t know if I can do this.

  2. I’m having a rough time getting over so many losses? Within the last 5 years I have lost my parents, my husband, both of his brothers that lived with us and his father that lived with us also? 3 months after my husband passed my dog was hit right before my eyes. It’s almost like I don’t know what’s going to happen next. I have my daughter and I thank God every day for that! But dealing with these losses has gave me PTSD? I’m praying for better days!

  3. I have lost my father in law and my step mum and my step dad and my partner has had a stroke all within the last 8 weeks. How on earth can I support everyone at the same time.

  4. The loss of my granddaughter came suddenly. I couldn’t grief because I had to be strong for my daughter. One week later I have lost my colleague. I am overwhelmed but I don’t know what do.

  5. I am so moved by all of these stories. It’s so easy to get wrapped up in my own story. In 2001, I was diagnosed with brain cancer. 6 months later, my mother passed away. 24 months later, my dad took his own life. Several months later my wife filed for divorce and I lost my job. Fast forward 8 years, and it’s happening again. My second wife filed for divorce 12 months ago, and I lost my job again. I’m not sure I have ever truly allowed myself to heal from any one of these losses, much less all of this loss combined. I feel for you all, and I hope you are all feeling some level of support as you walk through your pain of you loss.

  6. Able to finally leave narcissistic abuser, walked away from home I built. stalked for 4 years, then began to have back and joint pain, soon, barely able to walk, lost my job, then another home retirement savings used to live on and medications before SS and state insurance. Humira was very expensive. Had 2 wonderful dogs, my companions, children, to care for and then died 4 months apart. My health; spinal stenosis with psoriatic arthritis. In 4 years time, I’ve lost 2 homes, my job, 2 wonderful dogs and my health. My 16 year old car, dead, so what is the sense of going on? I miss my dogs so very much, I’m alone, renting a room Andy just don’t want to live anymore

  7. My 21 year old son suddenly died and one year later my husband age 44 suddenly died, 9 months later my 42 year old sister died of brain cancer and 3 weeks later my 70 year old mother suddenly died. It all was and is so unbelievable. In the last five years since all this, I’ve lived on three different continents and three different US states plus both of my living children are now divorced and my family has fallen apart. Also, my daughter is now suffering with health problems. It has been so, so much and I found this post because I thought there must be others who have had multiple deaths. I hear over and over do not compare grief and I am not, but I feel like no one understand because these were all immediate family members. All four were very, very close to me. I do not dismiss others’ pain over grandmas, aunts, friends and dogs but I want to find someone who understands my pain.

    1. You are not alone. There are many just like yourself. I have lost a lot also and although I know I have learned from my losses. I wouldn’t wish sorrow as an educational tool on anyone? But without knowing darkness u could never truly understand the light. I always remind myself that we are all on borrowed time just like our forefathers and mothers that came before us. LIFE REALLY IS SHORT. Be strong and u will make it! Do it as and example to your kids as and for yourself. It will get better and the mf saga continues but no one gets out alive and I say THANK GOD to that. I LOVE LIFE but this ones not forever that is for sure!! I only hope I don’t suffer to long when its my turn and Death comes for me? But I will take my licks like I always have. Trust in God and the good you hear inside you.You know it we all do! It will guide u. Mistakes will happen as they always have!! Best of luck sister you got this!! You WILL be alright. Life is hard for a reason! Remember to help others along the way once u r doing better!!

  8. In April, 2017, I found out the job I had had (and loved) for 25 years was going to end in December. I had to stay working with a good attitude and good results to get the small severance at the end. I loved that job and far too much of my identity was wrapped up in it. It also paid well and I was the main breadwinner for my family. The next month (May, 2017), my husband’s osteosarcoma (that had taken his leg 14 years earlier) was back, this time in his lung. Two months later (July, 2017) one of our three dogs died. One month later (August, 2017) we became empty nesters. Six months later (February, 2018), our oldest dog died with me holding her and telling her how great her life had been. Five months later (July, 2018) our third dog died. She was very sick and I took her to the vet and they put her to sleep. A lady in the parking lot hugged me. She had no idea of all the loss and how much I needed someone to hug me. Like an angel. One month later (August, 2018) my husband died. I watched his beautiful person (inside and out) die slowly over months after the drugs stopped working, in front of my eyes. There was no hope left for him. Then, just to see if I would break, two months later (October, 2018) my cat died. He was the coolest cat and everyone in the neighborhood knew him. So, in 18 months, I lost the love of my life for 33 years, all four of my pets, the wonderful job I’d had for 25 years, and was left with an empty house (nest). Yet, I’m still here. I often feel overwhelmed, directionless, and just so incredibly sad. But, I often still have hope for the blank canvas that I’ve been presented. I don’t see that I have any other choice.

  9. I’m 32. My mother died 9 years ago from cancer and passed away about 11 months after she was diagnosed. It was a devastating time (and still is to some extent but it has ‘numbed’ somewhat). About 1 year and 8 months ago, my partner of 10 years and I decided to separate and I went through months of losing my mind sleeping with different people, moving country, trying to work things out with him and failing (thankfully we remained friends) and 4 months ago my father died. Soon our family home of 30 years will be sold. There is a lot of loss at a young enough age and don’t really know anyone who’s been through a similar experience, so it’s all very new territory for me and am struggling to navigate. Love the metaphor of the messy room though and going to keep it in mind when it all feels too much.

  10. Have read each of your stories…and they brought me to tears. So sorry for all the losses you have had.

    I have also had many losses…worst one being loss of my husband almost 15 years ago. Then both of my parents, my brother, close aunts and uncles, cousins, friends, and also pets.

    Each loss brings back the feelings of the previous losses, and bring me down again. Have also moved and downsized. My sons were teenagers when their dad died, and had to grow up fast. One has moved out of the area, but thankfully, my other son lives close by. And they have a daughter, my 1st grandchild, now 15 months old, and she has added much joy to my life.

    Next year I am hoping to retire, so will again bring changes, but do hope to volunteer to help fill some of my time. Blessings to all of you!

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