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  • Thanatology Today

Grieving Multiple Losses

Updated: Mar 4, 2022

When we lose someone or something that we hold dear, our hearts and minds fill with sorrow provoking normal grief reactions as we embark on the often long and painful process of adjusting to our loss. Sometimes, though, we are dealt more sorrow than we ever thought possible because of multiple losses.

Bereavement Overload

Experiencing multiple, significant losses simultaneously or in rapid succession can happen to any of us, at any time, leaving us feeling engulfed by our grief. Bereavement overload comes about when we have not adequately processed our grief and mourned effectively for one loss before another one occurs.

The losses resulting from tragic events can produce bereavement overload. Source: Wix Media

Causes of Bereavement Overload

Consecutive Losses

The death of multiple loved ones within days, weeks, months, or a few years can cause an avalanche of grief for which there seems to be no end in sight. This chain of events can certainly intensify and prolong our grief.

Non-death Losses

A series of non-death losses – job loss, divorce, estrangement, relocation, property damage – in a relatively short period of time can also cause bereavement overload.

Secondary Losses

Like a domino effect, bearing one significant loss can bring about a number of related losses. For example, losing a spouse can also mean losing daily companionship, financial security, future plans and hopes, and more. It can also threaten our very identity. Death doesn’t just take our beloved away, it changes everything.

Cumulative Loss

We confront loss throughout our lives. From our earliest memories, we cannot deny that pets die, relationships end, and things change. Without fully grieving and mourning each loss as it arises, the losses pile on and so does our grief. Unreconciled losses of long ago can significantly contribute to our bereavement overload of today.

Aging and Loss

It is not uncommon for older adults to experience losses in greater quantity and frequency than any other age group. They often face the deaths of spouses, life partners, siblings, friends, and other peers, as well one or more pets or companion animals. They must also cope with the accumulation of various non-death losses that accompany aging, including the loss of independence, memory loss, decreased mobility, and declining vision, hearing, taste, and smell. For older adults, grief is likely a constant, albeit unwelcome, companion.

Tragic Events

It is too easy to call to mind countless examples of natural disasters, vehicle accidents, acts of terrorism or violence, wars, and other mass casualty events throughout history and in the recent past. These are traumatic events in which many people – our family members, friends, neighbors, community members, and compatriots – are taken from us all at once. These are among the most unbearable losses for which meaning may always elude us, and that we as individuals, communities, and nations will mourn indefinitely.

One Historical Case

A particularly poignant example from history highlighting the traumatic effects of bereavement overload is evident in the story of Mary Todd Lincoln. She endured a series of losses with the deaths of three of her four sons, Edward (1850), Willie (1862), and Thomas (1871). By the time Abraham Lincoln died in 1865, she was inconsolable as she shrieked, sobbed, convulsed, and had suicidal thoughts. She was unable to leave her room for a month following the death of her husband. She couldn’t even attend his funeral.

With no social support system and not knowing how to cope, she crumbled under the heavy weight of these monumental losses and fell into a deep depression. To make matters worse, her eldest and only surviving son had her committed temporarily to an insane asylum due to her erratic behavior and the intensity of her despair. Having also lost her status and identity, Mary Todd Lincoln died in poor health at the age of 64. She spent the last 17 years or her life longing to be reunited with her husband and sons.

Although this example is influenced by its historical context, it aptly illustrates the potentially devastating impact of bereavement overload. In the case of Mary Todd Lincoln, bereavement overload gave way to complicated mourning riddled with severe anxiety and major depression. She was not “crazy” as the public perceived, instead she was overcome by grief brought on by too many significant losses from which she simply could not recover.

therapy session
Professional guidance may be required in coping with multiple losses. Source: Wix Media

Simply Put

Even the most resilient among us runs the risk of succumbing to the difficult consequences brought on by bereavement overload. Not grieving each loss – one at a time – or grieving one loss at the exclusion of others can have a profound impact on our short-term and long-term mental and physical health. Especially in the case of multiple, coinciding losses, it is reasonable and advisable to seek professional help in learning how to adapt to a new reality and move closer towards accommodating for such immeasurable losses.

Kastenbaum, R.J. & Moreman, C.M. (2018). Death, society, and human experience (12th ed.). Routledge.

Grubin, D. (Director). (2001). Abraham and Mary Lincoln: A house divided [Film]. WGBH Educational Foundation.


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