Cumulative grief can occur if an individual experiences multiple losses during a short period. Cumulative grief can be extremely difficult to process as it can be overwhelming, exhausting, and heartbreaking to work through more than one loss in such a condensed timeframe.
Cumulative grief, also known as grief overload, can manifest in different ways depending on the individual. While cumulative grief isn't a formal diagnosis in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual V, it is still a valid reaction to experiencing losses.
Cumulative Grief Symptoms
Symptoms of cumulative grief will vary as everyone processes multiple losses differently. Some symptoms may include, but aren't limited to:
- Feeling overwhelmed by the losses experienced
- Feeling numb
- Avoiding processing the losses because it feels like too much to handle
- Processing one loss, but feeling unable to process the other
Keep in mind that cumulative loss can lead to other mental health disorders such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Substance Abuse Disorder, and Major Depressive Disorder. Cumulative grief may also manifest as other types of grief such as absent grief, delayed grief, and persistent complex bereavement disorder.
Examples of Cumulative Loss
Keep in mind that cumulative grief may not solely include the death of a loved one, but may also include other types of losses that can trigger grief. Examples of cumulative grief include:
- The death of a close friend, followed by the death of your partner
- The death of two friends within a short period
- The loss of your financial security, followed by the loss of a loved one
- The loss of your home, followed by a miscarriage
- The loss of a loved one, followed by the loss of your pet
- The loss of two pets within a short time period
- The loss of your job, followed by the loss of a loved one
Cumulative Grief Versus Complicated Grief
Complicated grief, now known as persistent complex bereavement disorder, may manifest as a result of cumulative grief. Cumulative grief and persistent complex bereavement disorder may both result from experiencing multiple losses. Unlike cumulative grief, persistent complex bereavement disorder is a mental health diagnosis in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual V. Symptoms of persistent complex bereavement disorder include:
- Loss of identity
- Intense yearning for the deceased individual regardless of how much time has passed since the loss
- Hyper-focused on the loss
- Feeling lonely
- Difficulty returning to your usual routine
- Symptoms do not improve over time and continue at least six months after the loss at a similar intensity
Depression Versus Complicated Grief
Depression and complicated grief, which is now referred to as persistent complex bereavement disorder, have some overlapping signs and symptoms, but there are some distinct differences to be aware of. It's also important to keep in mind that an individual may be diagnosed with a depressive disorder, as well as persistent complex bereavement disorder.
Coping With Cumulative Grief
Because the grieving process is so unique to each individual, it's important to note that some coping techniques will work for some, but not all individuals. If you are in the midst of grieving multiple losses, you may want to try out several coping techniques to identify which work best for your needs.
- Process each loss at a time and be sure to give yourself self-care breaks during this time
- Take mindfulness breaks and tune in to your body for as long as you feel comfortable doing so
- Be patient with yourself and know that processing multiple losses can take time and feelings that you thought you had worked through may resurface at a later date
- If you feel truly overwhelmed, are having thoughts of self harm or harming others, or are having difficulty with acts of daily living due to grief, consider reaching out to a therapist who can provide further support or a crisis line for short term assistance
- Join a support group for those who have experienced multiple losses
- Schedule time to process one loss at a time
- Use grief specific tools like a grief journal or grief worksheets to help get you started
- Connect with supportive loved ones
Cumulative loss can feel like it hits you extremely hard, and you may find yourself incredibly overwhelmed and/or numb to the situation. While processing multiple losses can feel indescribably difficult, there are healthy ways to begin processing your thoughts and emotions when you feel ready to do so.