Bereavement Overload: How to Cope When You’re Grieving Multiple Losses 

Does it seem like one bad thing keeps having one after another? Have you experienced multiple losses in quick succession? Are you perpetually angry, sad, or tired– and do these feelings trigger an overarching sense of stuckness?

Bereavement overload- also known as grief overload- can happen after enduring several losses. The “overload” effect may compromise your physical and emotional well-being. And while grieving a loss certainly isn’t easy, there are some small steps you can take that may improve how you feel.

What Is Bereavement Overload?

Bereavement overload refers to the complicated and challenging feeling associated with experiencing multiple losses. Of course, all types of grief can be excruciating, but the effects of compounding grief may exacerbate even more distress.

You may be experiencing bereavement overload if you:

  • have endured multiple losses.
  • have seemingly experienced one bad thing after another.
  • feel detachment or numbness over what happened.
  • often believe that life is completely falling apart.
  • feel increasingly depressed, helpless, or hopeless.
  • resonate with persistent themes of complicated grief.

Signs and Symptoms of Grief Overload

There really is no working definition of ‘normal grief.’ Grief is so deeply personal, and all symptoms make sense. However, you may be experiencing grief overload if you persistently:

  • feel excessive anxiety surrounding the loss or about future losses
  • experience deep guilt toward yourself or others
  • dissociate when feeling overwhelmed
  • experience sleep disturbances, including oversleeping, insomnia, and nightmares
  • have physical pain or weakened immune system responses
  • have intrusive thoughts about what happened or your own mortality and life

Some people with this type of cumulative grief find that life just feels unbearable. Daily tasks feel monumental and arduous. Even getting out of bed or taking a shower may seem exhausting. Others may hyper-function in response to their grieving process. There can be a sense of urgency to “get on” with life, and sitting with your actual feelings may be incredibly difficult.

What Causes Bereavement Overload?

There isn’t a single cause for bereavement overload. Instead, a combination of risk factors may increase the risk of this phenomenon.

Some potential risk factors include:

  • having a preexisting history of mental health conditions.
  • lacking support in the aftermath of grief.
  • experiencing massive life changes or upheaval after experiencing a loss.
  • having difficulties with emotional expression.

It’s important to note that there isn’t a specific timeline for bereavement overload, and the type of loss can vary. Some people experience numerous losses quite close to one another. But any sense of loss can add up over time.

Some people really struggle to let themselves grieve a particular loss. There can be such pressure to avoid the hurt and move on in your own life. Whether this pattern is conscious or not, it’s typically an important means of survival. However, this strategy does not make the feelings disappear.

Furthermore, it’s also important to understand that the loss itself doesn’t need to be a death. For example, losing your home, job, and relationship all at the same time may result in bereavement overload.

How Long Does Bereavement Overload Last?

There is no official timeline for grief. So despite what people may claim, you shouldn’t force yourself to try to “move on” after, say, six months or a year.

The overload effect can dissipate if you start taking proactive steps toward ensuring your well-being. Bereavement overload can be an extreme stress response- your mind and body have recognized the losses and feel overwhelmed by them.

While bereavement overload isn’t a specific mental health diagnosis, the DSM-5 does list specific criteria for persistent complex bereavement disorder. This diagnosis consists of intense grief that occurs over a prolonged period. The grief is often so severe that it affects various areas of functioning.

Additionally, the American Psychological Association has proposed official criteria for prolonged grief disorder. This diagnosis consists of intense preoccupation or yearning coupled with disruptive emotions that occur at least twelve months after losing a loved one.

Can Collective Grief Cause Bereavement Overload?

Collective grief happens when a specific community or group of people collectively experience a sense of loss. This kind of grief can occur in the aftermath of severe issues like natural disasters or shootings.

For instance, in the COVID-19 pandemic, many people experienced a sense of collective grief. It often felt like bad news continued to accumulate each day. And with so many deaths and bad news occurring all around the same time, people began feeling increasingly angry, sad, or detached altogether.

Collective grief can trigger bereavement overload because it often creates a sense of helplessness and fear. For example, you might feel afraid that things will never improve. Or, you might start feeling apathetic- it’s as if the world is falling apart, and you no longer seem to care.

How Do You Cope With Bereavement Overload?

Coping with any loss can be challenging. It often requires accepting uncomfortable emotions and making decisions outside of your normal comfort zone. But, no matter how long it takes, learning to find a sense of acceptance with grief can make a tremendous difference in how you feel.

Some of your standard coping mechanisms may not work as effectively right now. That’s okay. It doesn’t mean you should abandon them altogether. However, you should consider other ways you can take care of yourself during this time.

Start Identifying Your Feelings

What emotions are you experiencing right now? What are the sensations in your body? When you start thinking about the loss- even if it feels scary- what comes up for you?

These are your feelings and familiarizing yourself with them is paramount to healing. The goal isn’t to eliminate intense emotions. The goal is to become more accepting and embracing of them- feeling sad, angry, or confused is often part of the process. The more you try to suppress them, the stronger they often become.

It can be helpful to remind yourself that you are entirely human. We cannot know joy without sadness or love without loss. That said, you are meant to have thoughts and feelings.

If you struggle to identify your feelings, here are some gentle tips that may help:

  • Look at a feelings list and identify 2-4 emotions that most resonate with you. Identify any body sensations you notice.
  • Spend five minutes journaling about the here and now. Don’t try to guess how you feel. Simply acknowledge whatever feels right or is coming up. In hindsight, you may be able to note certain thoughts or feelings.
  • Close your eyes, take three breaths, and ask yourself, What is happening inside me in this present moment? Pay attention to any words that come to mind- these could indicate deep feelings.

Find Safe Support

There’s often a natural tendency to isolate when grieving. You may not want to burden or upset loved ones. But isolation often triggers even more sadness or anger, and it can stunt your healing.

When finding support, you need people who can understand and validate your losses. Even if they haven’t had the same experiences as you, you can find people who recognize the pain associated with grief.

There are many resources for finding a trusted support system. Some people find it through their family members or peer groups. Others turn to their spiritual or religious communities. Some find it via a mental health professional or support groups. In addition, many social media platforms have private groups devoted to specific loss topics.

You may need to find several outlets for support. Different people will be able to help you in various ways. And remember, good-natured people want to be there for you. It’s your job to try to let them into your world- although it may feel uncomfortable to lean on family and friends, this is your time to receive.

Try to Maintain a Daily Living and Self-Care Routine

Routines are beneficial for your health, and they can support a sense of safety and structure when it feels like things are falling apart. Following a schedule keeps you task-oriented and accountable, which can reduce those intense feelings of despair or helplessness.

A good routine doesn’t need to be overly rigid. It can be as simple as committing to brushing your teeth, taking a shower, and meditating for five minutes after waking up.

Of course, after a major loss, it’s important to remember that perfection isn’t the goal. It may feel impossible to get out of bed on some days, and that’s okay. But the more you dedicate yourself to following a few tasks each day, the better you will likely feel.

Avoid Excess Numbing

While the occasional glass of wine, midnight Amazon haul, or Netflix binge may feel good for the soul, escaping too frequently can cause more harm than good. Although these options may feel like self-care, it’s equally important to consider adopting healthy coping mechanisms.

Escapism often happens when we don’t want to deal with the depths of reality. This is a normal human desire, but overdoing it tends to create more problems because it can trigger shame, guilt, anxiety, and depression.

Instead of numbing yourself, try to focus on coping strategies that allow you to be more present. Commit to implementing more mindfulness throughout your day. When the urge strikes to ‘numb out,’ consider alternative forms of self-care that will inspire you to feel more rejuvenated and healthy- rather than sluggish and disconnected.

Choose How You Want to Honor the Losses

Honoring grief can help you maintain a sense of connection with the people or things you lost. Doing so can also foster a sense of meaning and fulfillment.

There are many healthy ways you can honor loss. Some strategies include:

  • writing letters or poetry to your loved one.
  • creating a photo album or scrapbook in their honor.
  • committing to doing things/making decisions that would have made them happy.
  • creating a special honored space in your home.
  • making a donation or setting up a small foundation in their name.
  • starting traditions that honor their spirit.
  • hosting get-togethers where loved ones can meet and share stories about the individual.
  • planting a garden or tree in their honor.

Practice More Self-Compassion

As you experience bereavement overload, it’s important to be mindful of the scripts running in your mind. Do you feel a deep sense of guilt? Do you feel like a bad person when you have moments of lightness or laughter?

All feelings are welcome in grief, but self-compassion allows you to practice internal kindness as you navigate tender emotions. This can be especially valuable if you struggle with ruminating over the past or panicking about your future.

Try to focus on what is in your control right now. Practice being kind, loving, and tolerant of your emotions. Get familiar with your negative self-talk and try to find ways to challenge it. While some pain may be non-negotiable, you shouldn’t torture yourself into a mental place of complete suffering.

Self-compassion also entails leaning on common humanity. Everyone struggles and suffers- nobody is immune to the deep perils of life. Even though you may feel lonely in your experiences, you are genuinely not alone.

Allow Yourself to Trust Your Grieving Process

Although this suggestion is a bit more abstract, it’s an important consideration as you navigate the circumstances in your life. There is no manual about “how to be a human,” and there really is no manual about how to “cope with grief.”

We’re all trying to do the best we can with our current resources and support. So, with that, trust yourself, and trust your resilience and inner strength. You can cope with this. You can learn how to take care of yourself despite hard emotions. Yes, things may feel worse before they feel better,  but that doesn’t mean you will feel stuck in agony forever.

Therapy for Complicated Grief in Austin, TX

Bereavement overload isn’t just something you need to endure. Without support, the process of mourning this grief can feel emotionally overwhelming and frightening.

Therapy can provide a safe and comfortable environment to process your feelings without judgment. While there is no “right way” to grieve, we can work together to honor your losses and move towards a path of healing. We can also collaborate on healthy coping mechanisms that can help support your wellness.

Whether you are seeking support for one loss or more than one loss, you deserve steadiness and unconditional support, and I will be here for you throughout this vulnerable time. As a grief therapist, I work with all types of loss, including ambiguous loss, disenfranchised grief, and collective grief.

Contact me today to schedule your consultation.

4601 Spicewood Springs Road Building 3, Suite 200
Austin, TX 78759
(512) 988-3363

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