The hidden impact of cumulative loss
On the surface, Lianne* feels she should be satisfied with her life. She has many of the things she thought she aspired to: a warm supportive circle of friends, a loving partner, a new job which keeps her stimulated and rewarded.
But all isn’t well. She finds herself getting angry at small things, lacking motivation to do much with her free time, feeling a constant background hum of dissatisfaction. The things that she used to take pleasure in seem to hold little attraction. Slowly she has been isolating herself from friends and family. Her relationship with her partner has become gradually more distant.
A devastating loss
Three years ago, one of Lianne’s closest friends took his own life. He’d become very depressed over a 12 month period, but no-one in his circle realised how bad things had become, until he was found dead in his home by a neighbour who’d become concerned.
At the time, Lianne had been in deep shock, but as time had passed, she felt she had grieved and moved on. Although she thought about Mario from time to time, she didn’t like to dwell on the past and preferred to keep positive about her life.
In the last few months, a lot had changed in Lianne’s life. She’d moved home and started a new job. This should have been a happy period, she thinks, but it doesn’t seem to be happening for her. She feels stuck in either a low mood or angry a lot of the time.
The impact of cumulative grief
So what’s going on? Well it’s probably clear, reading this, that Lianne has suffered from a lot of loss. Mario’s death was an enormous shock to her and one she wasn’t really able to process or deal with at the time and since then she’s experienced more loss.
Suicide is a horrific end to someone’s life, a bid to be rid of pain that has become unbearable. For those left behind, it can be equally horrific. Add to the feelings of loss, those of guilt, anger, bewilderment, sadness, loneliness that might be present too. There might also be post traumatic stress involved. Sometimes, the easiest way to cope is to not cope at all, and push it all away.
So when later losses come along, even though they might be on a different scale, they might be very triggering of other ungrieved losses. Of course, this doesn’t just relate to suicide, it could be bereavement, loss of friends, home or treasured possessions, job, health, children leaving home, change in government or political landscape, harm to the environment, cruelty to others or animals, societal injustice and violence, discrimination etc.
You could even think of ungrieved losses as cumulative, filling up an inner vessel which doesn’t have an infinite capacity. That’s why even a small loss, can tip you into the deepest of grief, if it’s the drop that makes the vessel spill over.
In Lianne’s case, her recent losses had added to the deep and shocking loss of Mario, none of which had been fully dealt with. Her swings from anger to depression were strong pointers to what wasn’t being expressed.
How to cope with loss
What can you do in the face of loss, single or cumulative? Each person’s experience is different, but there are some steps which can help.
The first step is acknowledgement: whatever the loss, you will need to recognise that you are experiencing a loss and that this loss matters deeply to you. If you don't feel you are your 'normal self' some gentle reflection on why might, amongst many possible reasons, uncover some unacknowledged losses.
2. Meeting your feelings
The second step is about meeting all the feelings that accompany the loss: grief, anger, sadness, loneliness, betrayal, despair. Whatever is around needs to be welcomed. You might be able to do this in quiet contemplation, talking with a friend or family member or with a counselling professional. Finding the space to do this safely is so important.
The third step is about taking care of yourself: there will be times when life feels unmanageable and overwhelming. Remembering the Buddhist maxim that all things pass, can be helpful here. That means pain, grief, anger numbness, and everything else too will go. There will be good days too, and that’s OK. Even though you might feel guilty for taking pleasure in something or having a laugh.
4. Moving through your feelings
The fourth step, over time, is moving through the feelings, not to forget, but to allow them to have been. You’ll probably know when the time for grieving is over. There is no set timeframe - for some people it can be months, for others many years.
5. Honouring your losses
The fifth step is about honouring the loss, to come into a different relationship with it. You could think of creating some rituals of memorial for your loss, to honour without plunging back into the grief: a poem, a silent meditation, a flower, a treasured walk, a favourite food shared with others, or a moment of remembrance and reconnection.
Finding your way through loss
There is no single path through loss but meeting it head on, when you are ready, can help with the process of grieving.
Working with a professional counsellor is one way of supporting yourself through this too. A counsellor can bear witness to all that has and hasn't been voiced in relation to your losses and help you process the enormous range and intensity of feelings.
With that process comes the possibility of moving through and being open for the next steps in your life without being pulled back again and again into the grief.
*Lianne is not a real client but a fictional person reflecting some of the themes that come up around cumulative loss in counselling.
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