Facing multiple losses can lead to 'grief overload.' Here's why it's important to understand, say experts.


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Angus Cloud was found dead by his mother on July 31 — just months after the death of the young actor’s father. (Stefanie Keenan/Getty Images for FILA)

When Euphoria star Angus Cloud, 25, died at the end of July — just a couple of months after the death of his father, Conor Hickey, of cancer — a family statement noted, “The only comfort we have is knowing Angus is now reunited with his dad, who was his best friend.”

It is likely cold comfort, though, for the young man’s mom, Lisa Cloud McLaughlin, who has now lost both her husband and son (and for Cloud’s sisters, who have lost their father and brother). It’s reminiscent of when Vanessa Bryant grieved both her husband Kobe and daughter Gianna, after their fatal 2020 helicopter crash, or when, many years earlier, Jennifer Hudson saw her mother, brother and nephew murdered, all at once.

Or when many everyday families lost two or even three or more loved ones during the worst days of the COVID pandemic.

Facing multiple losses — either at the same time or in quick succession — prompts what’s called cumulative grief, otherwise known as grief overload. And it is particularly difficult to grapple with, say experts.

“It occurs in a number of ways,” David Kessler, grief expert and author and founder of the resource Grief.com, tells Yahoo Life. “There can be a car accident with more than one person that died, for example, but it also can be that one person dies, and then six months or a year later another, and it just feels like they’re accumulating, and people can feel like they have a ‘season of death,’ asking, ‘Oh my god, how can so many people in my life have died?’

It’s when “the grief often seems especially chaotic and deafening,” leaving you to feel like you’re “struggling to survive,” writes grief counselor and death educator Alan Wolfelt, director of the Center for Loss & Life Transition, in a guidebook he published on the topic. “When we think of being overloaded, we think of a series of losses — so before you mourn one loss, you have another one,” he tells Yahoo Life.

As a counselor, adds Kessler, “I have always seen it, but I don’t think I saw it in the magnitude that I did during COVID, which really pushed it to the forefront.”

Why is it important to name and understand?

Having a sense of the nuances of grief not only help the person going through it have a better understanding of what they’re experiencing but allows friends and loved ones to be better supporters. Because our largely “grief-illiterate world thinks you have a month, three months, maybe a year [to] get over a loss and start a fresh slate, and then you go to the next loss. And anyone who’s been through it knows it doesn’t work that way,” Kessler says.

Instead, the intensity of grief can become compounded — and so, particularly for anybody still grappling with a loved one’s death who is “all of a sudden hit with another loss,” the grief can be shattering.

“People around you have to recognize that,” says Wolfelt. “Mourning one death is naturally difficult, but when you have multiple losses and come naked to that experience, which many people do … that’s grief overload.”

Further, he says, there is a “void” of knowledge around this topic among professionals. “We need to train more clinicians,” he says, noting that “counseling somebody who has grief overload without recognizing the natural features of it means you’re missing an opportunity” to be truly helpful. It’s why he stresses the complex feelings that come up, both in his teaching and his counseling.

Complications — and secondary losses — that arise

Among the complications of cumulative grief is “the conflict surrounding prioritization,” Wolfelt says. In other words, “if you give your attention to one death and then not give to the other,” it could prompt overwhelming guilt and confusion.

Kessler experienced this first-hand, he says, after the death of his son, at 21, following the death of his father.

“There was one day I had my father’s watch, and I put it on, and I started thinking about my dad,” he recalls. “And then I thought, wait — you’re grieving your son. You shouldn’t be grieving your dad who was 84. But then I thought, no — it’s not about who you should be grieving. The grief is just going to come up… and it’s very organic.” As he would tell Angus’s mom, “Sometimes it might be all about your son, and other times it might be about your husband. And that’s OK.”

Other issues, Wolfelt points out, include “a loss of a support system,” meaning that, often with multiple losses, “someone you would’ve turned to, normally, is someone not available to you now.”

There is also the potential for “survivor’s guilt,” he says, leaving the person suffering the losses to wonder, If these people died, how can I still be alive? Why am I alive?

Finally, because of the “overwhelming pain and suffering” felt after multiple losses, Wolfelt says there can be a “natural reluctance to participate in the needs of mourning,” and that “many have psychic numbing or acute aftershock.” He stresses, though, that such a reaction is a helpful and “normal defense.”

Secondary losses, or losses that aren’t death are a result of the deaths, often accompany grief overload, adds Wolfelt, with the three main ones being a loss of one’s sense of self (“I feel like a part of me has died, too”), a loss of security (or fear that more deaths will occur) and a loss of meaning.

“When you have loss overload,” Wolfelt explains, “you naturally question: Will my life have meaning in the future? You have to slowly go on a search for renewed meaning. And people around the mourner need to understand that — and not say things like, ‘Well, you still have two other people in your life.'”

Moving forward

People often ask Wolfelt, “‘How do I even begin to mourn? Where do I start? Is it OK to take a time-out from mourning?’ Yes, it is,” he says. “And there are times when I help people put aspects [of their grief] on hold for survival purposes.” When you’re feeling paralyzed by the guilt overload it may be important to find a therapist — especially one with a “more directive” style, able to set the tone for the session with plans, like, ‘Today, we will give attention to your mother,’ he suggests.

Sometimes, a person is so “immobilized” by grief overload that he will say, “‘Right now, your only role is to breathe in and breathe out.’ We try to be respectful of defenses … and go really slow.”

Kessler stresses that “we can’t grieve multiple losses at once — you can only grieve individual people.”

Wolfelt agrees, noting, “Our culture fuses efficiency with effectiveness … but you can’t mourn them all at once. You had a unique relationship with each of them.”

Finding support through individual therapy as well as support groups, both experts stress, can be extremely valuable.

“I don’t think people realize, ‘oh, this is a real thing,'” and instead just think that their cumulative grief is “bad luck,” Kessler says. “Because it just feels like you in the world if you don’t have anyone else to talk to… It’s important that people join groups, because there’s something very strange about grief: Your friends and family who you think will get it often don’t, so family and friends can feel like strangers — and strangers can feel like family and friends.”

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Alexandra Williams
Alexandra Williams
Alexandra Williams is a writer and editor. Angeles. She writes about politics, art, and culture for LinkDaddy News.

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