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Brought to you by the Center for Loss and Life Transition - Alan Wolfelt, Ph.D., Director
Too Much Loss: Grief Overload and Its Causes
If you are feeling overwhelmed by too much loss, this article is for you.
Loss and unwanted change are unavoidable parts of everyone’s life, but sometimes people experience a disproportionate number or degree of bad things. Sometimes the losses stack too high, creating a sorrow that seems too great to bear.
In the face of too much loss, it’s normal to feel devastated, exhausted, or hopeless. It’s normal to feel paralyzed and overburdened. Rest assured that the overwhelming nature of your grief is a normal reaction. What is abnormal is the unusually challenging life situation you are in right now.
Yet there is so much hope. By familiarizing yourself with the basic principles of grief, you are already taking a big step toward healing. You see, grief responds to awareness. When you educate yourself about grief and mourning, you are making the experience more understandable and bearable. It becomes something you can work on rather than something that simply happens to you.
I have been a grief counselor and educator for more than forty years now. In my work, and in my own life, I have encountered a great deal of loss. It might help you to know that grief overload is a fairly common, though indeed painful and grueling, circumstance. At one point or another in their lives, many people find themselves dragged under by too much loss.
In fact, I have noticed that more and more of us are becoming grief overloaded because, thanks to medical advances, people are living longer. Where death used to be an everyday occurrence, now it’s common for us to live into our 40s or 50s before someone close to us dies—and then, all too often, loved ones start getting sick and dying one after another.
But the overburdened grievers I’ve learned from have also taught me this: Over time and through active mourning, they came through. And so will you.
What Is Grief Overload?
Grief overload is what you feel when you experience too many significant losses all at once or in a relatively short period of time.
The grief of loss overload is different from typical grief because it is emanating from more than one loss and because it is jumbled. Our minds and hearts have enough trouble coping with one loss at a time, but when they have to deal with multiple losses simultaneously, the grief often seems especially chaotic and defeating. Before you can mourn one loss, here comes another loss. Even if you have coped with grief effectively in the past, you may be finding that this time it’s different. This time it may feel like you’re struggling to survive.
Causes of Grief Overload
Unfortunately, sometimes several people die in a single incident. Natural disasters, car accidents, and acts of violence can cause the deaths of multiple people you care about all at once. Such traumatic circumstances naturally give rise to grief overload. If you have suffered this type of loss, I urge you to read the section on traumatic loss below. You are in particular need of extra support and care.
Traumatic loss and grief overload
All significant losses feel traumatic, but here I want to talk specifically about losses caused by sudden and often violent events. Murder, suicide, and death by a traumatic accident or natural disaster all fall into this category. So do events that cause severe injuries instead of death and/or significant damage to homes and property, such as fires.
Multiple people may die in a traumatic incident, or one person might die and others may be seriously injured. Or no one might die, but several people—including you, perhaps—might be hurt, or maybe your home, belongings, and financial stability might be destroyed.
If you are reading this book because, at least in part, you have suffered a traumatic loss of any kind, you are at risk for your grief overload being influenced by what is called “traumatic grief.” Traumatic grief is grief that has an added component of intense fear and other challenging symptoms caused by the violent nature of the incident itself.
If flashbacks, memory gaps, persistent negative or intrusive thoughts, low self-esteem, hyper-vigilance or anxiety, personality change, and/or an inability to handle the tasks of daily living are part of your grief overload experience, I urge you to see your primary-care physician and a trauma-trained grief counselor. You will need—and you deserve—extra support and care. You might also find solace and support in my book The PTSD Solution, as PTSD and traumatic grief are largely one and the same experience.
Other times, a number of people you love may die of unrelated causes but in quick succession. If a close friend dies of cancer, then a parent dies of natural causes in old age, and then a sibling is killed in an accident, for example, you are certain to feel overwhelmed by too much loss all at once.
These deaths might happen within days or weeks of each other or within months or a few years. But it’s also important to note that there are no hard-and-fast deadlines that define grief overload caused by successive loss. If you feel overloaded by grief, no matter how spread out in time the losses have been, you are experiencing grief overload.
Losses other than death
And it’s not only death loss that causes grief overload. Other types of significant loss are also common contributors. Whenever you lose something you are or have been attached to, you naturally grieve the change or separation. This means that job loss often causes grief. Divorce causes grief. Health problems cause grief. Estrangement from loved ones causes grief. A move away from a beloved home or location causes grief. When you experience a number of such significant losses in a period of time, in addition to or even in lieu of death losses, you may well find yourself suffering grief overload.
What’s more, secondary losses are also intrinsic components of grief overload. That’s because each significant loss in our lives gives rise to a number of related losses, like ripples in a pond after a stone is dropped in.
For example, if a spouse or partner dies, we don’t only suffer the loss of that important relationship and unique individual. We also experience related losses, such as the loss of our self-identity as half of a twosome, the loss of our hoped-for future, the potential loss of financial security, and many more. Even everyday life changes resulting from a major loss—such as no longer having a companion to prepare and eat dinner with each night—fall into this category of secondary loss. Secondary losses can make it feel like loss is permeating every aspect of our lives. Everywhere we turn, there’s nothing but loss.
On a related note, cumulative lifetime losses can also lead to or be a factor in grief overload. Throughout our lives, we all experience loss, of course. From the time we are young, pets die, friendships break, and other hardships present themselves year after year after year. But what you may not realize is that if you don’t fully grieve and mourn each loss as it arises, you end up carrying unreconciled grief. Eventually that carried grief can add up and become an unsustainably weighty burden. If you suspect that long-ago losses might be part of your grief overload right now, you’re probably right.
Grief overload in the elderly
Finally, older people often find themselves experiencing grief overload for a combination of reasons mentioned above. Increasingly, their friends and peers begin to die in faster succession, their health often deteriorates, and they may have also accumulated a great deal of carried grief over the course of their lives. I myself am in my mid-sixties as I write this, and I want you to know that while I understand that loss overload in our final decades is a very real challenge, we can continue to live and love meaningfully as long as we also continue to actively mourn.
Caregiver grief overload
Professional caregivers of all kinds are at risk for grief overload. If your job, career, or dedicated volunteer role involves helping others who are experiencing trauma or loss of any kind, grief overload is both something to be aware of and something to proactively anticipate and address in your self-care plan. I urge you to read my book Companioning You: A Soulful Guide to Caring for Yourself While You Care for the Dying and the Bereaved. Whether you work in a hospice, funeral home, hospital, or school, whether you are a counselor, medical professional, or another type of caregiver altogether, this book will help you identify, prevent, and deal with burnout and grief overload as well as create an action plan for caring for—or companioning—yourself.
About the author
Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.D., is a respected author and educator on the topics of companioning others and healing in grief. He serves as Director of the Center for Loss and Life Transition and is on the faculty of the University of Colorado Medical School’s Department of Family Medicine. Dr. Wolfelt has written many bestselling books on healing in grief, including Too Much Loss: Coping with Grief Overload, from which this article was excerpted. Visit www.centerforloss.com to learn more about grief and loss and to order Dr. Wolfelt’s books.