Grieving Multiple Losses

Recently I received the following email from a woman who has experienced multiple losses in her family. My response is below.

Email about multiple losses:

Hi there, I was reading all the wonderful information you have available and I would like to ask you what you think might be best for me.

I am 57 years old, 3 adult children and I have been struggling with my emotions since 2006 but since then everything has gotten worse.

In 2006, my husband lost his father in April we had just walked in and found him on the floor. Then in May my oldest brother was diagnosed with terminal cancer and passed away in August. Mom passed away in December of the same year. My dog I had for 14 years had to be put down. I don't think that I had really gotten over the grieving when in February 2010 my middle brother passed away.

In November of 2010 my husband passed away very suddenly. We had been married for 36 years and known each other since grade 1. I had talked to him at home and when I went to go to bed realized that he had passed away. Since then I feel like I have nothing inside of me. Like I am numb, I don't know how much of this would be trauma from everything happening or the grieving process?

I love to journal or I used to love to, but I feel like my head, mind, body are empty. I only seem to feel sadness. I don't clean my house anymore. I don't go out unless I have to. I try to journal but just go blank. I try very hard to pray and give everything to God but I feel no different. I have no desire for anything. I appreciate everything that I do have in life but inside I don't feel at peace or content??

Is there anything you would advise for me? I have spoke to my dr. but they say with time I'll be okay, but I find over time the shock and panic I had felt has not healed but turned into sadness and emptiness. Would you please write back to me if you can and if you can just help me to understand myself or what is happening to me.

Response to Multiple Losses:

I'm so sorry to hear about multiple losses you have experienced in the last few years. One seems like too much and to have to deal with so many must feel overwhelming. I'm not sure if I can help you understand yourself, but I do want you to know that what you are experiencing is a normal response to grief and trauma. And it does seem likely that symptoms of emotional trauma would be a normal reaction to this combination of sudden and multiple deaths in a family.

I don't know if you stumbled across this Mary Luquette Interview, but your story reminds me a bit of Mary's as she also had multiple losses within her family in a few short years. You may find it helpful to read the story of someone else who has made it through something similar to what you are experiencing.

The art of quilting became a big part of Mary's story. Many people find some source of creativity helpful to expressing the emotions they are experiencing in loss. I used photography, memory books, and poetry writing/journaling. Others have used many forms of visual art, gardening, or taking new paths in their careers. These creative endeavors do not necessarily have to be about loss, but can also be something that helps you find new hope for living. If nothing comes to mind, don't try to force yourself into anything, just keep open to trying new things. Even just observing the art of others and reflecting on your own emotions can be helpful.

If you have found journaling helpful in the past, but are not finding the energy for it now, I wonder if chatting with an online counselor might be a helpful place to start. I have recently been reading research that suggests that using chat technology to write out what you have experienced to an online counselor has similar benefits to journaling. In a sense it combines the benefits of journaling and counseling into one activity, yet gives you the benefits of both. However, the added benefit for you is that the counselor would ask you a question so you do not have to initiate the journaling yourself. The dialogue between the two of you would help shape and give space for your writing. Follow this link to read some interviews I have done with online grief counselors.

As I read your email, I couldn't help wishing I was further along in some of the free mini-courses that I will soon be offering. These courses will include several series of 7 emails that will be a combination of information about dealing with grief and traumatic loss and also give some structure for helping you reflect on your own loss experience. If you would like to keep informed about this development, you can sign up for my newsletter.

One thing that I have learned about multiple losses, and that Mary's experience illustrates as well, is that the individuals are generally not grieved all at once. In other words you will likely experience different types of grief for the different individuals, and you will likely feel grief emotions for different individuals at different times.

Another resource for multiple losses is the book A Grace Disguised: How the Soul Grows through Loss by Jerry Sittser." He lost his wife, mother and daughter in one vehicle accident. His strategy was to have a specific chair in his house where he would sit for a half hour every day and just feel and write about the emotions of his grief. This strategy helped him not overlook his grief, but also move on with the regular business of his day when he was not sitting in the "grief chair." It created grief space, but also some helpful limits that allowed him to be open to new joy and hope in the rest of his day.

If someone were to incorporate this idea of the "grief chair," I would suggest that at the end of the half hour they move to a new chair. Then spend 5 minutes in the new chair reflecting on 2 or 3 things that have taken place in the past 24 hours that they are truly thankful for. Spend a few minutes letting yourself feel that gratitude in your body. Then ask yourself, "What is one thing I can do today that will add happiness to my life?" The answer should be something simple and doable, like taking a walk in the park, taking a bubble bath, drinking a cup of tea on your deck, reading a good book, or taking the time to browse in a new shop. Then make time in your day to actually do this thing and allow yourself to feel happiness and gratitude while doing it.

In his book The Other Side of Sadness: What the New Science of Bereavement Tells Us About Life After Loss George Bonanno says that people who move through grief most resiliently are those who are able to move back and forth between the positive and negative emotions of their life during grief. So perhaps the idea of a grief chair and a gratitude chair would be one way of helping this to happen. And one way to get through the grief of your multiple losses.

Articles that may be helpful for dealing with multiple losses:

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