Years ago, my father estranged himself from all of his adult children. In that season of refusing to communicate with any of us, he died unexpectedly. While we were still processing what happened a few months later, my husband was diagnosed with a terminal illness and then he too died. I was faced with a double whammy of grief.
Back-to-back or multiple losses that occur in succession lead to what is called cumulative grief. The phenomenon is not limited to deaths. People can be in grief for a variety of reasons such as a health crisis, the end of a significant relationship, or loss of employment. When these losses overlap, our ability to carry on can be stressed beyond what is tolerable. How do those already in mourning who then experience a second devastation carry on? What can those who love them say or do to offer support?
To begin, it helps if everyone involved understands the connection between grief and anxiety. When a person loses someone they love, it’s natural for their anxiety levels to escalate, especially at first. Death heightens the awareness that dangerous, frightening and negative things are everywhere, and our ability to keep our loved ones safe is often beyond our control. During times of mourning, thoughts about the fragility of life, the reality of death, and the pain of grief are a significant part of every single day. It takes a long time to integrate a loved one’s death to the point that thinking about it recedes into the background.
Unfortunately, some people have yet to adjust to their loss and regain a measure of equilibrium before the additional stress of a subsequent tragedy knocks them down again. Still black and blue from life’s first bruise they are then dealt another blow. Feeling anxious, overwhelmed, and paralyzed in the wake of such double grief is to be expected. Any former understanding of how things are and should be has been yanked away. Hopelessness and despair can creep in because sadness over the loss or losses endured is compounded by the random unpredictability of the particular circumstances. If we had only driven slower we wouldn’t have been there when that other car ran the red light. If he had only been standing a little to the left the branch/rock/car would have missed him.
Considering how easily it could have turned out differently can lead to the belief that when it comes to big things like life, death, or health, you have no control. And, if you start to think that there’s nothing you can do, you might also begin to think why even try? This is the mindset that can take hold when someone is faced with circumstances that exceed their ability to cope.
We’re usually told that when our circumstances feel overwhelming, it’s best to find support and get professional help. But let’s face it, sometimes we don’t have the resources, the energy, or the time to follow such advice. Or, even if we are willing to seek help, we can’t find a professional who takes our insurance or who is accepting new patients. What then? Is there anything we can do or that friends can suggest to help get through this season of intense and overwhelming emotions?
While there is no quick-fix and professional support is the appropriate course of action (if it’s accessible), here’s a list of self-help suggestions for those struggling through a difficult or overwhelming season of life. I can attest to their ability to at least redirect my focus when I feel myself spiraling downward because I’ve tried each one of them. Perhaps they might offer you a strategy to get through a particularly rough patch yourself.
Physical exercise. Study after study confirms that exercise reduces depression, anxiety, and stress, helps lift brain fog, and improves mood and contributes to overall well-being. Even modest exercise such as a walking program can reap these benefits.
Meditation. This doesn’t have to be anything beyond focusing your attention on one specific sense (hearing for instance), or noticing all the details of a certain object, or considering what you are grateful for in your life (food to eat, a warm shower that morning, and your pet’s affection are a few examples).
Reminding yourself that you are not alone in suffering. When dealing with tragedy we can feel isolated because we seem to be the only one going through a situation like our own. The truth is that at any given time, there are lots of other people who are also grieving a loss or suffering in some way. An online search can help you discover communities where you can hear others’ stories, connect with them, and even gain wisdom from their experiences. You can also find books about how others have dealt with grief or suffering. Knowing that there are others with similar experiences can help you feel less alone.
Going outside. Again, studies uniformly conclude that being outside correlates with better mood, lower stress, and improved brain function. As a second tier alternative if you absolutely cannot get outside, even photos of nature or listening to audios of waves or birdsong can be recuperative for a brain under stress.
Imposing Social Media Limitations. Be selective about what you choose to watch on social media. Rather than scrolling through everyone’s highlight photos and posts, a technology diet might be in order. Consider whether looking at particular sorts of social media encourages you or hurts you. Choose accordingly.
Cultivate Choice. Notice even the very small things over which you do have control. Using the power of personal choice helps our well being because it shifts our focus away from the things we cannot change. A few suggestions to put this into practice: re-organize a drawer, decide to make a favorite meal, visit that place you’ve been wanting to see, or make a to-do list, a prayer list, a song list, or any other sort of list to get you thinking or planning.
Serve Others. Studies show that volunteering in the community or helping family, friends, or co-workers improves our mood and connects us to others. When we serve others we typically feel happier, more purposeful, and less stressed. By helping others, we often help ourselves too.
Again, none of these suggestions offers a quick fix. One thing I’ve learned is that life can change for the worse in an instant, but for it to get better usually takes place over time. Progress might need to be measured by one day waking up to notice that you are feeling less bad or less in pain. Actually feeling good again could take a lot longer.
How can you help someone facing cumulative grief? Having patience and understanding is key. The one who is grieving will never fully “get over” the loss even if he or she looks and seems fine. Perhaps you could be the rare friend who is willing to talk about the deceased and their death, who is not afraid of witnessing tears, and who has the courage to be present with the person who is grieving without trying to find the right words to “fix it”. Repeat your concern and offer to listen as often as you can. The power of the human connection to help someone get through grief cannot be overestimated.
I have been where you are. It was a lonely and grief filled place. As a result, I have made it my mission to help other widows by suggesting that taking action to honor your husband’s legacy will enable you to set goals for yourself so you can begin to embrace life again. What do you mean, you may ask.