How To Navigate The Grief Of Losing Several Loved Ones
We share advice from some of our grief specialists
For most people, losing a loved one is a devastating, life-changing experience. It can leave you feeling numb, confused and lost, impacting every aspect of your life and the lives of people around you.
It can take time after a bereavement to adjust to your new normal, as you work through the range of intense emotions brought about by your grief.
The pandemic cruelly demonstrated the impact of multiple losses with the traumatic experience of losing two, three or more loved ones in a short period of time for some.
When suffering these unimaginable losses, grievers talk about feeling totally numb, only able to go through the motions, moving from arranging one funeral to another, to another. Preventing any opportunity to address, or even acknowledge their own emotional needs.
In this article, we share advice from some of our grief specialists about how to cope after experiencing the unimaginable loss of several loved ones.
Feeling Overwhelmed Is To Be Expected
First things first, if you are feeling confused and overwhelmed, that’s okay - in fact, it would be a worry if you weren’t. What you are going through will take a lot of energy to manage, and there are days that you will feel you just can't cope any more.
Try not to put yourself under too much pressure, or give yourself a hard time if you are finding it hard to cope.
Distracting yourself by keeping busy and staying strong may work for a while, and can actually help you deal with day-to-day events. However, your feelings are likely to bubble up, sometimes at completely random times, sometimes leaving you unable to cope, or understand your emotions.
“You may feel completely overwhelmed, and this is to be expected. If possible, try to find some time during the day when you can sit in a space that feels comfortable and safe, to allow yourself to acknowledge the enormity of the losses, and to accept your conflicting feelings. Give yourself space to recognise distracting behaviours that may be happening, and how they may impact you.
“You may feel confused as to which loss you are grieving, your mind may be whizzing from one loss to the next, trying to make sense of it all and answer questions that there may be no answer to.
“Keep in mind, your grief may be delayed as you have so much to cope with at this time. Each loss will need to be acknowledged and grieved for, rather than trying to cope with all the losses in one go, acknowledging what that person meant to you.”
Your new normal may include socially awkward moments due to being unable to cope - that’s okay. It may also include moments of intense emotions that leave you drained. That’s okay too.
Rather than always trying to control your reaction so you can keep your pain under wraps, try to create opportunities for you to acknowledge your feelings, and try to understand where they are coming from.
Challenge Unhelpful Common Beliefs
Throughout our lives we have developed coping skills to enable us to function in difficult circumstances. Often, these are adopted from societal expectation and learned behaviour from childhood influences.
However, what if many of the common coping skills we adopt are not actually helpful? What if advice like “be strong and carry on” actually keeps you stuck in your grief, having to carry your heavy load wherever you go?
If this sounds familiar, take some time to ascertain what you actually need, not what your learned behaviour is directing you to do. Don’t be afraid to challenge the common beliefs that might be doing more harm than good.
“We know that we all need time to 'grieve' and with so many bereavements in such a short time, how do you access and process the grief, over and over again? If I had to consider a way to help a griever I would ask them to consider their learnt beliefs when it comes to feeling sadness and emotional pain.”
If getting out of bed and getting dressed is the best you can do some days, let that be okay with you. It’s when we make too many demands of ourselves, trying to live up to unhelpful common beliefs, that we set ourselves up for disappointment, failure and if left unchecked, depression.
This doesn’t mean to say you shouldn’t get on with practical tasks if you feel you want to. Being involved in planning a ceremony, or making practical arrangements can provide opportunities to share meaningful moments with other loved ones.
However, when you use ‘keeping busy’ as an excuse to avoid your feelings, it can form into an unhealthy pattern of behaviour that prevents you from addressing your emotional needs, keeping you on a hamster wheel of unresolved grief.
Vulnerability Is Not a Weakness
You may feel you haven’t grieved, or have not felt the pain you think you should feel because you’ve been that person who arranged the family funerals, caught in an internal battle of suppressing your pain instead of acknowledging your feelings and allowing them to flow through you.
It can be difficult to come out from ‘under the numbness’. After all, it’s easier to not feel anything, because if you don't open yourself up to your feelings, they won’t hurt.
Acknowledging your feelings is hard. Working though what you are feeling is even harder - no one likes to feel vulnerable, after all. However, you don’t have to go through this alone. Those we’re close to will be ready and willing to help for a start.
“Allow others to see that you are hurting, and you’re not as 'strong' as you may appear. Allow the feelings to come, the tears to flow, and be prepared to be vulnerable, so you can share how you feel instead of pretending to be 'strong.’“
Don't be too tough on yourself if you’re struggling to ‘stay strong.’ You have gone through more loss than many people will experience in a lifetime. Try not to expect too much of yourself, and give yourself a break if you find yourself struggling socially to fit in - or feeling like you just can’t be sociable at all right now.
Everyone is different and so everyone will deal with loss differently. There’s no right way or wrong way - just your way. Try not to make comparisons, or make yourself feel worse if you don’t seem to be coping as well as someone else.
“Recognise this is a personal journey and to not compare - but where you do have elements of what you're feeling in common, focus on those rather than the whole experience, as it can be comforting to talk to others who you feel can understand.
“Being aware that, given the cumulative nature of grief, one plus one isn't really two - it's much more. And given the unique relationships we all have with whatever has been lost, whilst it can be helpful to share what you're going through, it can also be isolating if you're not feeling the same as others describe.”
When you’re ready, share how you are feeling with someone. This could be a loved one, a close friend, a fellow griever, or a professional. The process of verbalising what you’re going through will help you to start making some sense of what you’re feeling.
Remember, you are not broken, you’re simply processing a horrific life changing experience as best you can, so you don’t need to be judged, lectured, or fixed, you need someone who is a good listener.
Treat Each Loss Separately
It may be all you can do to start with to survive day-to-day, making little sense as to why or what is happening as each loved one passes away. Your grief may seem insurmountable, the loss too big to cope with, your emotions too painful to process.
Again, this is normal, natural and okay. Give yourself time, and when you’re ready, try to process each loss individually, rather than as a whole. The grieving process for each loved one will be unique, and so needs to be acknowledged separately.
“I found that approaching each loss individually was very helpful. They were three very different responses and warranted three different approaches.”
Every relationship is different, just as every life is unique - and while there are similarities to how we grieve loved ones we’ve lost, each grieving process deserves a unique approach. Giving yourself the time and space to grieve for each loss individually will enable you to experience a more meaningful, complete grieving process.
"The relationship you have with your loved ones will be unique, so the way that you grieve them is unique as well. By consciously thinking about them individually, we can access memories of experiences that we shared together.
“Try to create an environment where you can calmly acknowledge your feelings, and help you stay connected with yourself and them. You may find the following activities helpful:
Outdoor walks in nature or by the sea
Journaling memories to focus your thoughts and heighten your senses
Listening to music that you both enjoyed
Relaxing hobbies that remove distractions
“Be prepared to participate in your own recovery and don’t be afraid to reach out for help if you feel you feel emotionally stuck.”
- Megan Messenger, Grief and Loss Specialist
When you’re ready to do so, acknowledging each loss individually, and adopting a separate grieving process for each, will make your grief appear less overwhelming, and will give more meaning to each relationship.
A New Journey
Your life has changed beyond recognition. Possibly the people you have relied on as always being there for you are gone, leaving heartbreak, sadness and bewilderment. Your hopes and dreams for the future have been shattered.
Your life will never be the same again. How can it be?
However, your life journey can still be filled with meaning. Albeit the grief and loss you feel is now part of you, and a part of your new journey. The hope for your different future is that your terrible losses don’t keep you emotionally trapped on a ‘hamster wheel’ of unresolved grief.
But instead, as you give yourself time to work through your grief, you will be able to draw upon treasured memories to continue to enrich your life, your love and your relationships.