Coping with multiple losses

Dear Dr. Neimeyer,

Why is it so hard? I lost my sister in the Spring, then my husband a month later, then my son two months later. It’s been a losing battle I just don’t know how to handle this.


Dear Phyllis–

When a person has a litany of losses in such close succession as you have suffered, another loss is upon you before you can even grieve the one that came before, the result can be a kind of fog of grief, a blur of pain and longing that is hard to sort out, and harder still to adapt to. And to make it worse, the losses may include the very people we would naturally turn to for help and support with the other deaths. It is hardly surprising that such bereavement overload can challenge the coping capacities of even the most resilient people, and put us at risk for a long and complicated course of grieving.

One small but useful step in such cases can be to “comb through the losses” in order to disentangle the associated grief. Just as one might do with tangled hair, the solution is not simply to cut it off, but instead to tease apart the different strands of feeling and meaning associated with each loss. With a box of tissues handy, write the names of each beloved person across the top of a page of paper, drawing a column beneath each going down the page, with their names as the headings. Then, on the first row, write in a few words a description of what was special to you about each person in the column below his or her name, perhaps “my closest ally when I was small,” “always gave me strength and made me feel safe,” or “sweet and funny.” Then, on the next line, describe your relationship to each person, such as “co-conspirators against our parents,” “understood each other without speaking,” or “I was his caregiver when he was ill.” Continue in this way, adding other rows that seem important to you: my main feeling in relationship to _____, what I would say to ______, who best understands what this death means to me, what would help now with this specific loss _______. The themes are up to you, but be sure to include this final prompt last, as it will often suggest a practical step you can take to address the unique needs you have in relation to a particular grief strand–perhaps to have an AfterTalk conversation with your sister, to visit a place with a good friend you once enjoyed with your husband, or to direct to another child in your larger family system some of the loving attention you once gave your son. Gradually, this can help the strands become less tangled, and the way forward through each loss can become more clear.

–Dr. Neimeyer


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2 thoughts on “Coping with multiple losses”

  1. Thank you that was very helpful.
    First of all, Phyllis you are never ever alone in this and it is very confusing. I’ve lost so many loved ones since my mum when I was 8 but in a year lost my partner, aunt who was closest thing to a mum and her daughter my cousin and best friend I spoke to every day so felt these deeply as they are the only ones I had left I was so close to and their absence is felt every day and they are the very people who helped me with other losses.
    I think that’s a great idea, instead of “lumping” all the grief together which can happen it’s important to work in some way on each individual.
    I find journalling a life line and if that’s too much I have a scrapbook for each of them I fill with photos, letters etc but also sympathy cards, thank you notes and kind words after each loss with uplifting images and pictures and have even printed a lot of their text message off. This way you are being creative and isn’t quite as difficult as journalling can be sometime.
    Good luck in finding your way as we all are and remember them and give yourself time to process each loss and what secondary losses came from those x

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