What It Means to Experience Cumulative Grief



Everyone will experience grief at one time or another. And grief does not have to be death-related, it can be from any event that causes a trauma such as a divorce, losing a job or even through a mass- altering experience such as quarantining throughout COVID. Trying to cope through the grief may be an overload and may cause fatigue. But suppressing grief doesn’t go away on its own as the emotions pile up forming complex layers that need to be addressed in order to heal. All of this falls under “cumulative grief” which wreaks havoc on our mental, physical and emotional bodies.

This Was My Experience with Cumulative Grief.

My mom passed away suddenly when I was young. My aunt, (my mom’s sister) passed away soon after. Then cousins, more aunts, uncles, grandparents, and my father. I don’t remember the exact years their passing happened. I learned that forgetting the timelines was my brain’s way in coping.

When my partner passed away, my brain wanted to remember every aspect of that day and every moment before that. I couldn’t compartmentalize the grief as I had done with everyone else.

I moved into grief overload. And I lost my memory for almost a year.

I couldn’t remember basic functions like how to put on my clothes or which utensil to use. And I would find myself in my car in a different location or state not even remembering how I got there.

My brain was trying to shield itself from the pain of the significant loss I had experienced. Not just from the loss of my partner but of everyone else.

What is Cumulative Grief?

When someone encounters multiple losses or are unable to address their grief, it builds up and becomes overwhelming and challenging. Imagine each time you left an article of clothing in your room without putting it away – a few pieces may not clutter the room and you may not notice it. But over time, it accumulates and one day you walk into a space that feels suffocating and overwhelming. That is how cumulative grief builds in our life.

Some of the effects of cumulative grief may include: Feeling overwhelmed Numbness Physical stress or ailments Sleeplessness Avoidant or unable to process loss The experience of cumulative grief is unique for each person as we all feel loss differently. No two experiences will be a like. The emotions I had from losing my mother (numb) were completely different than that of my dad’s (anger) and even more different than that of losing my partner (sadness).

And there’s no timetable for how long someone can and will grieve. But if the loss of a loved one is never addressed, then emotions are left bottled up, waiting to be released. Like water in a teapot at its boiling point, emotions will find a way to release.

How to Work Through Cumulative Grief

The journey moving through grief will be different for everyone. And coping with the grief will be challenging as you may feel overwhelmed emotionally, mentally and physically. In my personal journey, I have found methods and tools that have allowed me to take a step back and deal with everything one step at time.

Here are some effective ways of managing cumulative grief. Asking for help is such a vulnerable act for ourselves as so often we do not wish to be a burden to others. I learned that asking for help is a gift we give to ourselves, and it is a gift we give to others to allow them to support us. During the year I lost my memory, my friends would call me every morning to give helpful reminders or set up calendar updates of important dates, tasks and activities that needed to be done. I had another friend who would connect with me via Google chat every day, to keep me “company”. Another would come over every evening to spend the night and make sure I wasn’t alone. As easy as it would have been for me to say no and try to handle everything myself, without my “army of supporters” I may have been lost in that grief fog for longer than a year.

Writing allows the space to express everything you’re feeling whether it is grief-related, an emotion triggered by someone else or random thoughts. I would employ writing prompts to help me examine “stuck points” or feelings like guilt or regret that would play in my mind like a broken record. Letting out these thoughts and giving them a place to “be seen”, allowed me to work through and eventually accept them.

The most important reminder in this journey is knowing that while the journey through grief makes warriors of all of us, you are also a human dealing with a deep loss. Allow yourself to feel what you need and try not to hold judgement. It doesn’t mean you’re weak, it means you’ve loved, and that love is expressing itself in whatever form that takes.


Photo Credit: © Robsonphoto2011 | Dreamstime.com