There are times when the normal feelings of grief become even more difficult to cope with. This may be because of previous life experiences, the nature of the relationship and family dynamics, current mental state, or the way the loved one died or is dying. Whatever the reason, grief can sometimes take a turn for the worse and may require the help of a professional therapist. The four most common variations of the grief experience are disenfranchised grief, complicated grief, compounded (or cumulative) grief, and anticipatory grief. Let’s look at compounded grief so that you have a better understanding of why this type of grief may be more difficult for the mourner.
First, Let’s Define Normal Grief
Before we dive into compounded grief, it’s important that you understand what normal grief looks like. Put simply, grief is your natural human response to the loss of someone or something you love. The emotions of grief vary greatly – sadness, anger, guilt, relief, shock – but these are all normal responses to loss. As much as you may prefer not to feel or deal with these types of emotions, they are actually a healthy part of the grieving process. When these emotions of grief become overwhelming, trigger deep depression, substance abuse, or suicidal thoughts, or are extreme or prolonged to the point that the mourner cannot care for themselves, we all understand that something more than normal grief is at work.
Grief is often accompanied by age-old rituals that bring people together to mourn. We hold hands, offer words of support and love, send cards and flowers, make donations, and deliver hot meals to the grieving family. We stand together to support those who are grieving and give them emotional and physical support as they come to terms with the loss. But what happens if one loss after another keeps piling up without giving you time to process what you think or feel?
Enter Compounded Grief
As we move forward, we’re going to review several key aspects of compounded grief. We’ll start off with a definition before moving into who’s susceptible, the complications compounded grief can bring, and a few tips for processing through compounded grief.
A Quick Definition
In short, compounded grief, also known as cumulative grief, is a pile-on effect of grief or “grief overload.” It may mean losing several loved ones in a short period of time. It may mean losing a loved one, then a relationship, then a job, then a pet, then a natural disaster hits and damages your home, etc. The losses can come from various sectors, but put together, it’s a big pile of grief and loss to deal with.
Additionally, losses you have not been able to process or face yet (even if they are from years ago) can add to the compounded nature of your grief. This is one reason why it’s so important to deal with your thoughts and emotions surrounding every type of loss, so they don’t create a tangled web of emotion that’s difficult to unravel.
It’s possible for anyone to encounter compounded grief, but there are certain groups that have an increased likelihood: the elderly, healthcare professionals, and trauma survivors. Let’s break this down a little.
With the elderly, advanced age makes it more likely that they will have more friends and family die in a shorter period of time. For healthcare professionals, especially those in hospice care, the ER, or ICU, death may be a regular occurrence. As they see patients die, the losses and the emotions can pile up. And finally, trauma survivors who may be dealing with years of pent-up grief over past pain may feel unequipped to deal with new losses.
Now, remember, anyone can encounter compounded grief. These three groups are just at increased risk. No matter your age, you can experience a cascade of losses – loved one, friendship, job, pet, relationship, etc. – and you can begin to feel an overload of grief.
Complications that Arise from Compounded Grief
As with disenfranchised grief and complicated grief, there are certain complications that are unique to compounded grief. Let’s review them.
1. A tendency toward avoidance
When experiencing multiple losses in a relatively short period of time, your natural inclination may be to shut down emotionally and avoid thinking about or dealing with the pain. You may feel extreme fatigue for a prolonged time. Yet another loss piled on to existing losses may trigger depression or suicidal thoughts. You may not know what to do or how to get out of the rut, so you avoid your feelings altogether. However, this is the last thing you need to do. Avoidance prolongs your grief, and as more losses occur down the line (and they will), your grief is only compounded more.
2. Watch out for numbing activities
Because avoidance is common with compounded grief, be on the lookout for numbing activities. In other words, things you do to avoid dealing with the grief directly. Common numbing activities include excessive alcohol consumption, binge-watching TV, online gaming (even the ones on your smartphone), and substance abuse. Additionally, outbursts of misplaced anger, blame, and overreactions to others’ comments or actions can become more common. While these coping mechanisms may seem to ease the pain in the moment, they can be harmful to yourself and others. It is important to ask yourself if your coping mechanism is helping you or hurting you even more in the long run.
3. A strain on your faith
For some, experiencing loss after loss can lead to questioning faith in God. You may feel like you are being punished or find yourself asking how God could allow this much struggle and pain. If you feel shaken in your faith, it’s okay. God is not surprised by your feelings, and He’s not offended by them. Be honest about how you feel–don’t sugar coat it. Read through the Psalms to find prayers that express how you feel. Stay connected through the stress and grief and feelings of betrayal. Lean on Him in the days to come as you start to work through your grief.
Tips for Processing through Compounded Grief
As with every type of grief, you can process through what you feel and begin to find healing and reconciliation on the other side. But it will take hard work and perseverance on your side. Here are a few tips to help you get started as you work through your compounded grief and begin to feel the burden of grief overload lighten.
Take Your Time & Grieve Each Loss Individually
While it’s important not to avoid your grief, that doesn’t mean you should rush through the grieving process and lump all of your losses together into one big grief session. Instead, take time to honor each loss individually. While this process will take you longer, it will be much more effective in actually helping you mourn the losses. Each loss is distinct and unique, deserving of specific attention. Perhaps you start with the smallest grief and work your way through it. Then, choose another one, and work through it. By breaking your grief into bite-size pieces, you will feel less overwhelmed and be able to give each loss the focus it needs.
If you are grieving multiple people, consider writing down their names, your memories, their strengths, what you would say to them today, or what you miss about them. As you move into your memories and bring them to the surface, you will begin to release the emotions that have been pent up inside.
Find Ways to Express Your Grief
We all process grief a little differently than each other, so what works for your friend may not work for you. You can make some educated guesses on what will work for you but remain open to options that may make you feel uncomfortable. It may be exactly what you need. A few examples of ways to express your grief include talking with a friend, journaling, participating in a creative endeavor like painting, woodworking, or sculpting, joining a support group, or engaging in physical exercise like runs or walks.
Or, if your feelings are more intense, you may feel the need to expend yourself. You could use a punching bag, go on vigorous runs, go to a batting cage, shout at the sky, or whatever else will bring you release. As long as you aren’t hurting yourself or others (or breaking the law), find something that will help you release your emotions.
If you decide to talk with others about your grief, you might choose an understanding friend or family member who won’t try to minimize your grief. You might also consider whether attending a grief support group would be helpful, especially if other people in the group have experienced a similar loss. Finally, don’t be afraid to seek out a professional. With so many losses to sort through, a professional therapist can help you come up with a plan, establish a routine, and start addressing your grief in a healthy way.
Don’t Be Afraid of Your Emotions
As you find ways to express your grief, you may find some unsettling emotions below the surface. That’s okay. Grief brings out a wide range of emotions, like sadness, anger, shock, despair, fear, relief, or even guilt. No matter what you’re feeling, don’t be afraid of it. It’s normal, and you just need to take that extra time to process through and nurture yourself as you do the work of grief.
Compounded grief takes a mental, emotional, and physical toll on the body. That’s why you should take extra steps to take care of yourself. You need adequate rest and nutrition to give your body the fuel it needs to get through the grieving process.
Here are a few suggestions for self-care:
- Spend time with friends and family
- Get a massage to release any tension or stress you may feel
- Create art – painting, drawing, writing, making crafts, woodworking, etc.
- Sing or listen to music
- Get outside for walks and hikes
- Journal about your feelings
- Meditate or pray
Honor Your Losses
Lastly, search out meaningful ways to honor each specific loss in your life. Take time to think about the loss that hurts the most and try to put words to the pain or start a healing ritual. For instance, with the death of a person, you might write a tribute poem, watch their favorite movie every year, or bake their favorite dessert on their birthday. With the loss of a pet, you could put a memorial stone in your yard or walk your pet’s favorite path. Or, for the loss of a relationship, you could place a keepsake in a memory box, or you could box up all your keepsakes and either donate or throw them away. What you do isn’t as important as honoring your feelings and your needs. As you honor your losses, you can begin to release your emotions and find a way to move forward.
We can’t necessarily plan and prepare for compounded grief because we don’t know when it will happen. However, we can cultivate good grief habits and actively engage with our feelings. If you are currently dealing with compounded grief, don’t give up. Take one day at a time, one loss at a time. As you work through each event that has caused you pain, you will move forward and find renewed meaning and purpose in life. Your grief doesn’t have to control you; you can take back your life.