Coping with multiple losses

Dear Dr. Neimeyer,

Why is it so hard? I lost my sister in the spring of 2013, then my husband a month later, then my son two months later 2013. It’s been a losing battle I just don’t know how to handle this.

Phyllis
 


 
Dear Phyllis–

When a person has a litany of losses in such close succession as you have suffered, another loss is upon you before you can even grieve the one that came before, the result can be a kind of fog of grief, a blur of pain and longing that is hard to sort out, and harder still to adapt to. And to make it worse, the losses may include the very people we would naturally turn to for help and support with the other deaths. It is hardly surprising that such bereavement overload can challenge the coping capacities of even the most resilient people, and put us at risk for a long and complicated course of grieving.

One small but useful step in such cases can be to “comb through the losses” in order to disentangle the associated grief. Just as one might do with tangled hair, the solution is not simply to cut it off, but instead to tease apart the different strands of feeling and meaning associated with each loss. With a box of tissues handy, write the names of each beloved person across the top of a page of paper, drawing a column beneath each going down the page, with their names as the headings. Then, on the first row, write in a few words a description of what was special to you about each person in the column below his or her name, perhaps “my closest ally when I was small,” “always gave me strength and made me feel safe,” or “sweet and funny.” Then, on the next line, describe your relationship to each person, such as “co-conspirators against our parents,” “understood each other without speaking,” or “I was his caregiver when he was ill.” Continue in this way, adding other rows that seem important to you: my main feeling in relationship to _____, what I would say to ______, who best understands what this death means to me, what would help now with this specific loss _______. The themes are up to you, but be sure to include this final prompt last, as it will often suggest a practical step you can take to address the unique needs you have in relation to a particular grief strand–perhaps to have an AfterTalk conversation with your sister, to visit a place with a good friend you once enjoyed with your husband, or to direct to another child in your larger family system some of the loving attention you once gave your son. Gradually, this can help the strands become less tangled, and the way forward through each loss can become more clear.

–Dr. Neimeyer

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