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Weathering Cumulative Grief

By Orlando J. Gonzalez, MSEd, LMHC, CEAP 

Current realities continue to necessitate the repositioning of how we get things done. While this may offer an opportunity to demonstrate flexibility and personal resilience, when prolonged, the process of constant change becomes exhausting. We effectively risk losing all appreciation over the impact these changes have on us, how we may be managing them, what we may have lost, and what we may be grieving. 

It is likely that most of us are being impacted by multiple losses and actively experiencing the effects of cumulative grief. Yet, it might not be that apparent to us. We experience cumulative grief when we encounter one consecutive loss after another, where a previous loss is left unaddressed (not grieved) before the next experience of loss surfaces. Cumulative grief can build over months and years to seriously affect both our physical and mental well-being. 

When we think of losses, our minds typically go to the loss of loved ones because these tend to be the most significant. Many of us have indeed lost loved ones to COVID-19 and that grief process is complex and long-lasting.  But there are other losses we may also be grieving simultaneously that are not easily identified.  These “unconscious losses” never-the-less hold the potential to compound the effects of grief and be impactful. 

A simple way to look at it is to ask oneself, “what changes have I had to weather?”  Each change, no matter how positive, can bring with it the potential for loss and initiate a grief response. Whether it’s the loss of a job, adjustments made to new work environments, how one lives, how one plays, who one can or cannot visit, how one can or cannot travel, the world’s news at our fingertips, demands for justice, etc.  Each may represent a loss and has potential for contributing to cumulative grief where we feel a sense of prolonged and generalized bereavement (often feeling we are continually mourning something – but never sure what exactly).  

Living in high stimulus environments may afford us the capacity to avoid facing our grief head on, but this catches up with us over time. When we don’t address losses, we allow grief to accumulate and surface when we least expect. How often have we noticed others, “make mountains out of mole hills,” become emotional easily, or misinterpret our actions? If you feel generalized irritability, a lowered frustration tolerance (shorter fuse), or find yourself becoming emotional at the drop of a hat, you may be experiencing grief overload. 

It is important to acknowledge that sorting through our grief will take time and patience. Each loss is unique, and each person experiences a world onto themselves. So, there is no standard for how long the process should take, or that any one approach is better than another for grieving losses. We must each do what we feel is right for us, given our unique set of circumstances.  Don’t let anyone tell you how you should feel, how you should move through your grief, or how long it should take you to feel better. Trust yourself in this process.  

In the Grief Wellness article, Bereavement Overload: Coping with Cumulative Grief and Multiple Losses, author Dani Hart, cites the following things to keep in mind as we manage or advance through the grief recovery process. 

  • Realize that each loss must be grieved individually. The significance of each loss is unique and holds a different meaning. Creating space to process each individual death and celebrate each life helps focus our attention on who is being grieved. Write the person’s name on paper and express what you appreciated most about that person; how they supported you and what you will miss most about them. You may also choose to jot down what you wish you could say to them, or express gratitude for having had them in your life (e.g., how is your life better for having known them, etc.). 
  • Be mindful of your thoughts, emotions, body, and environment.  Be attentive to what is going on internally and in your environment. Tuning in helps us recognize the impact of difficult events and enables our capacity to be aware of how each has impacted our thoughts, emotions, and physical body. This awareness will help us regulate the integration of our experiences. If emotions become overwhelming, shift your awareness to the outside world and emphasize being present in the moment. Practice meditation or relaxation techniques to help in this regard. 
  • Talk to trusted friends or family. Many who are grieving turn inward and away from social supports. This may be ok to do for the short term, but if prolonged can contribute to feelings of loneliness and isolation. Reach out to your family and friends to let them know that you are working on grieving losses. Tell them about your losses and share your experiences with them. Ask for their support – which may amount to gathering for a quick lunch from time to time to “check in” on each other’s lives. 
  • Join a support group. During times of loss, people may feel lonely and alone. Support groups afford participants an opportunity to share concerns and feel a sense of connection. People discover they are not so alone in this experience, that there are others who also grieve, and that they can receive support from others while being agents of support themselves.  
  • Seek professional help. Working with an unbiased grief counselor or therapist is a great option for those needing to sort through difficult emotions or experiences. Feel free to reach out to the UM Faculty and Staff Assistance Program (FSAP) to request a confidential consultation appointment with a Florida licensed psychotherapist to evaluate options, develop a plan and receive resources for addressing such concerns. 
  • Take time for yourself.  One of the most common of responses to bereavement is to deny your own self-care.  So, it becomes one of the most important things you can do during times of loss.  The basics of drinking water to stay hydrated, eating healthy food to ensure the body has nutrients, getting 7-8 hours of sleep, and moving your body to stay healthy should be the primary concern. 

Other self-care activity includes: 

  • Spending time with friends and family 
  • Getting a massage 
  • Traveling to an old favorite place or somewhere completely new 
  • Creating art―painting, drawing, making jewelry, etc. 
  • Playing, singing, or listening to music 
  • Renovating a part of your home 
  • Going to the theatre 
  • Walking, hiking, or climbing in nature 
  • Writing or journaling 
  • Sweating in a sauna 
  • Reading 
  • Meditating 

Let the start of our new year be a time of reflection. Consider where you have been, what you are going through, and where you would like to be in the future. Take inventory, grieve losses, and let go of the things which no longer serve you to greet new realities with fresh perspectives and a forgiving heart. 


Click here to read the full Mind and Matter Spring Edition.