How does facing multiple deaths in succession impact our lives?
Questions like this are often either avoided or left unanswered for most due to fear and shame of their grief. It’s also important to note that grief doesn’t have to be strictly tied to death. It can include a divorce/separation, an empty nest as the children go off to college or move out, the death of a pet, a cherished person moving away, or even a broken friendship. No matter the situation, if we haven’t taken the time to process each one and allowed ourselves to grieve naturally, chances are that the next change will trigger the sadness of the first situation, and we will find ourselves becoming overloaded with grief.
Common statements related to grief overload are “bad things come in threes” or “when it rains, it pours.” While these statements might seem fitting during the beginning or following multiple changes, we are confident that things will settle and hope is possible when grief is acknowledged and when we surround ourselves with caring individuals. Our minds and bodies tend to immediately brace for more heartache and overgeneralize negative aspects of thoughts, situations, and people that used to bring joy.
Some might say that this is our bodies’ safety feature when living life. Without even thinking, they brace for impact and find it easier to go into defensive mode. It’s simply too much to deal with now, and it’s something that we can handle later. This can help us focus on taking care of all the final arrangement details and to adjust quickly to unexpected situations. Still, long term, if we continue to deny grief, it can be triggering or develop into overload by another death or change.
Our brains are wired to protect us from pain and sadness but not for long. Our body wants to release it, and if this grief is not eventually released, our bodies will find unhealthy ways to react. Reactions can be discussed on a sliding scale; on one side, we can isolate ourselves, and on the other, we can begin to engage in reckless behaviors such as reckless driving, pickup smoking, drinking, or making decisions that pose high risks. In the middle of both of those, you can begin to notice that you have more aches and pains or tend to get more sick than usual.
The grief can be two-fold for those related to the deceased and those who were caregivers. Now you’re adjusting to the physical absence of a loved one and might be experiencing guilt with your identity as the caregiver. For the death of a spouse, you might feel lost or empty not having that individual around and might find your financial security is being impacted. As we experience changes in our life increase, so does grief increase as we adjust and react.
In addition, without any say or control, we have been living through a pandemic, and everyone has been impacted. Every day over the last two years, we have been presented with death and experienced unwelcomed news. You may have found yourselves facing the death of someone you knew, cared about, or loved directly.
So, how can we acknowledge feelings of grief, sadness, and/or despair?
How can we unpack feeling overloaded, slowly and safely?
Recognize and directly name what you are experiencing.
How you naturally react is not your fault, and it does not define or limit you as a person. If anything, it shows us inner strength we never knew we had, it reminds us that we are human, and lets us know that people and situations were deeply valued and important to us even if we weren’t aware of it. It’s easy to overgeneralize and label yourself as weak, but that’s simply not true. When you notice yourself putting yourself down or these patterns, try to focus on small victories you have made and replace those negative thoughts with affirmations of love, hope, and honesty. “I am feeling isolated, however, my grandkids love spending time with me. I’ve let myself go, and I feel drained, but I know wearing purple reminds me of my wife, or I know I deny my feelings, but I can take a five-minute walk and process those feelings.”
Reach out to others or seek professional help.
If you notice changes in your mood (ex. increase in anxiety, depression, suicide, self-harm), daily activities, relationships/friendships, or staying home and not waiting to join others contact a grief counselor. If you notice changes in memory and cognitive skills, or an increase in physical symptoms, contact your physician or schedule a yearly check-up.
Talk to trusted friends or family members, they most likely want to help, but it’s common for them to be unsure about what to do or how to help. One way to overcome this is to be direct with your needs or feelings. “I need to talk to you and bring Kleenex or Brownies, can you help me find a counselor, can you come by once a week, or I need to go to my doctor, will you go with me? In addition, if you find it more comforting, Greenlawn Funeral Home offers quarterly grief groups at no cost to anyone in the community. Sessions are professionally led, and those facing grief overload can find others going through similar situations.
Increase time spent exercising or in nature.
I see the trees turning pink, white, yellow, and purple as I write this. Daffodils and tulips are beginning to pop up, and the wildflowers are everywhere. We live in a beautiful area of the country. Go for a walk on one of our trails or parks and notice the beauty. Start small and work your way up to as you feel is needed. Each day is a new day, and if you don’t accomplish a goal start fresh the next day. Show yourself kindness and grace just as you would if you encouraged others.
Begin a new project or try something new.
Learn a new hobby, such as painting, fishing, or craftsman skills of stained glass, knitting, or woodworking. The project doesn’t matter as much as doing something to challenge your brain.
What do you have a passion for? Working with animals, sewing, baking, playing music, driving, writing, etc. What is something you’ve always wanted to help out with? These can all lead to volunteering in our community. The opportunities to help others are endless.
Write in your journal.
If you don’t have one, find one. Putting your thoughts, worries, and feelings into words and sentences matters. It helps to process them, and it will eventually allow our brains to release emotions.
Be aware of your use of substances that help you cope.
Has your intake of alcohol increased? Pills? Legal or illegal substances? Sugar? Carbohydrates? Sometimes we want to fill the pain of loss with substances or even shopping. Stay alert to the signs.
Speaking of signs, your body will give you the symptoms of stress, which can be increased pain, difficulty breathing, increased headaches, or even chest pain. Please don’t ignore these. Your body is attempting to speak to you.
Reach out to others. I am convinced and have experienced that people want to help in my life. Allow them to help you, and it will likely increase both your own and their joy and self-esteem. If needed, make an appointment with your doctor or go to an emergency room.
Overall, focusing on your mind and body will give you the clues you need.