Multiple Losses Can Increase Isolation

“We don’t see many people these days,” my husband commented.

“I know,” I answered. “It’s because of our multiple losses.”

After our twin grandchildren lost their parents in separate car crashes in 2007 we became their legal guardians and conservators — roles that required tremendous time and documentation. Then two more family members died. Grieving for four loved ones while raising grandchildren is the hardest thing we have ever done.

Coming to terms with one death is hard, but coming to terms with four is much harder. According to Alan D. Wolfelt, PhD, Director of the Center for Loss and Life Transition, the American culture does not encourage mourners to express their grief. He makes this point in his article, “Helping Dispel 5 Common Myths About Grief.”

Our culture tells mourners to carry on, according to Wolfelt, to keep our chin up and stay busy. “So, they [mourners] end up grieving within themselves in isolation, instead of mourning outside of themselves and in the presence of loving companions.”

The University of Texas cites the isolation of grief in a website article, “Life After Loss: Dealing with Grief.” It says a person who has suffered sudden loss may have sleep disturbances, nightmares, distressing thoughts, depression, severe anxiety, and social isolation. “The length of grief is different for everyone,” the article explains. “There is no predictable schedule for grief.”

There is no predictable for multiple losses either. My stages of grief were not absolute and often overlapped. It took several months for me to realize I was grieving for my loved ones in the order they died. Though a small group of friends encouraged me to express my grief, they were the exception.

Why do multiple losses increase isolation? In our case, becoming a GRG (grandparent raising grandchildren) made us isolated. While friends were visiting relatives, taking cruises, and attending conferences, we were at home with our twin grandchildren. Our interests are different, too.

The number of losses is another cause of isolation. Bob Deits, author of “Life After Loss,” describes grief as a test of endurance. He thinks it takes at least two or three years to work through a death. We cannot expect someone who is grieving for several loved ones to bounce back instantly. I still have days when I cannot believe my daughter, father-in-law, brother, and former son-in-law died within nine months.

Lack of information about multiple losses also contributes to isolation. Many friends were so stunned by my story they did not know what to say or how to help. The bereaved person has a sense of impoverishment, according to Judy Tatelbaum, author of “The Courage to Grieve,” and needs companionship. Your friends may not be able to provide companionship at this time.

The power of secondary losses is yet another reason for isolation. Each death creates dozens of secondary losses. In some instances, the pain of the secondary losses is greater than the deaths. When my daughter died, for example, I losy Sunday dinners with her, family stories, common interests, such as decorating, traveling with her, and the satisfaction of seeing her excel in life.

Other factors may contribute to isolation. You may have a chronic illness, be a family caregiver, or forced to move. Still, you may get help from friends, your religious community, social services, national groups, relatives and neighbors. We can emerge from our isolation cocoons and soar like butterflies.

Copyright 2010 by Harriet Hodgson

Harriet Hodgson

More Articles Written by Harriet

Harriet Hodgson has been a freelancer for 38 years, is the author of 36 books, and thousands of print/Internet articles. She is a member of the Association of Health Care Journalists, Minnesota Coalition for Grief Education and Support, and Grief Coalition of Southeastern Minnesota. In 2007 four of her family members died—her daughter (mother of her twin grandchildren), father-in-law, brother (and only sibling), and the twins’ father. Multiple losses shifted the focus of Hodgson’s work from general health to grief resolution and recovery, and she is the author of eight grief resources. Hodgson has appeared on more than 185 radio talk shows, including CBS Radio, dozens of blog talk radio programs, and dozens of television stations, including CNN. In addition to writing for Open to Hope, Hodgson is a contributing writer for The Grief Toolbox website, and The Caregiver Space website. A popular speaker, she has given presentations at public health, Alzheimer’s, hospice, grief, and caregiving conferences. Hodgson’s work is cited in Who’s Who of American Women, World Who’s Who of Women, Contemporary Authors, and other directories. For more information about this busy wife, grandmother, author and family caregiver, please visit www.harriethodgson.com.

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  • Grace M Alvarez says:

    Multiple deaths in a short period of time does leave one empty of the joy of living. It happened to my family in 1976 when we lost five beloved members within a few months of each other. What each one of our beloved departed had given us is what sustained us. In remembering them, talking about them, sharing stories about them, and even to this day, keeping them alive in our hearts – that was the salve that healed and continues to heal. The emptiness will always be there – through the years we have lost others – young members and old – each death brings its own sorrow. For me, having a young child near to watch grow and help guide and to tell them about their relatives who had a wealth of love, laughter, share of tears and courage to live through it all. Raising grandchildren is something I know a little about – I’ve had that experience too and for me it has been as fulfilling as the first time around in the experience of parenthood – only a bit more challenging!
    God Bless you and help you to carry on knowing your children are at peace and your grandchildren are safe.

    • Grace, thank you so much for your thoughtful and wise comment. I am so sorry for your multiple losses. Our daughter’s death was the most painful for us. Just as you suggested, however, we continue to share stories about them. Some stories have already become part of family lore.

      Harriet

    • Dear Grace,

      Thank you for your insightful comments. Your last sentence about knowing my daughter is at peace and my grandchildren are save brought tears to my eyes because it is so true. In two days we take our granddaughter to college and my grandson leaves in a week. Though my husband and I will miss them terribly, we have the satisfaction of knowing they are happy and hopeful about the future.

  • Nicki says:

    Multiple losses are really hard I’m finding out. Lost my father in October 2008, his brother Jan 2009 and his sister and sister in law in the space of 1 week in November 2009. It’s like I don’t always know which end is up. Who am I grieving for and what am I grieving… after all that’s the end of that generation of that family. Which makes the current generation… mine.

    Grief over my dad’s been taking a long time as the secondary losses are quite large compared to the others.

    • Hi Nicki,

      Thank you for your thoughtful reply about multiple losses. In my experience, accepting them takes a long time. Like you, my thoughts were all over the place. I examined my relationship with each deceased loved one and it was helpful because I was able to clarify my feelings. The secondary losses associated with our daughter’s death have been huge and we are constantly reeling with shock. Thankfully, things are calming down. I wish you the best.

      Harriet

  • Tammy says:

    I feel your pain, i have also lost loved ones my father in law, then 9 months later my mother in law, then one year later my father and 3 months later my sister. I am not myself at all i use to be so happy and now i cannot find happiness anywhere. I do hope it is out there again somewhere.

  • I am sincerely sorry for your multiple losses, Tammy. Your comment about hoping happiness is “out there again” struck a chord with me. My latest book, Happy Again! Your New and Meaningful Life After Loss, may help you. It is in production now and should be available in a few weeks from Centering Corporation and WriteLife Press.

  • I am so deeply sorry for your losses and humbled and amazed by your strength in picking up the torch to raise your grandchildren.

    Thank you for this article – it touches on a subject that certainly needs more light shed on it.

    I have lost 13 people in the last 3 years (and number 13, my Grandmother, just passed away Wednesday) and it has been extremely isolating. It is so nice to read an article directly relating to something I feel every day. Hearing it outlined here brings a sense of validation and deeper understanding to my own experience, and I hope it sheds light for others as well.

    Now, my question is, how do we help those around us understand what people like us need after multiple losses? Can we slowly begin to shift American culture & it’s views on grief, or not? I myself, have worked to find all I need within, not without. But, I would also love to see more awareness and physical/emotional support for people like us who’ve lost so much in such a short time.

    I am thankful for this community to bring us together. Perhaps we are already beginning the shift here.

  • Thank you for your comment, Megan. You have certainly been burdened with losses. In time, we may be able to make American cultre more aware of multiple losses, the secondary losses that go with them, and the recovery challenge. I’m trying to help by writing about multiple losses. You can I can both help by using the term “multiple losses” and our recovery challenges. Most important, we can be grateful for the loved ones we have had in our lives.

  • jane says:

    Thank you for this. I just lost my father to a sudden heart attack and we were very close. While I haven’t lost anyone else to death recently, I did lose my husband to a very painful divorce, and I’ve lost big parts of my identity to a sudden physical disability I developed 10 years ago. I quite literally went from happy, healthy 22 year old newlywed to bedridden overnight. Just went to bed fine and woke up in too much pain to even function.

    The illness was traumatic, but losing my husband was more so. He had been my primary caretaker and sole source of support for years, until I was blindsided by the discovery that he’d been betraying me on multiple levels for most of the marriage. He was an addict and a classicly two-faced manipulator with an excellent mask. After getting out and finally telling a few people what I’d been through, I realized how he had been covertly but intensely abusive for most of the relationship; he isolated me from any outside support and then controlled my exposure to the real world. There were several physical assaults that I denied and minimized in order to survive–thinking we were married, so it couldn’t be “real” assault. The situation and pain of betrayal hit me hard when the blinders fell off and I’ve been dealing with ptsd from the fallout.

    My father was one of the most instrumental figures in my ptsd recovery, one of my biggest sources of support, and one of the only people I’ve felt any safety with. The expression and nature of ptsd means I have to fight so hard not to isolate myself. My trauma leaves me feeling so unsafe emotionally and my painful illness leaves me feeling unsafe in my body. Dissociation is how I survived both. I was just beginning to manage some of my symptoms when my dad passed away.

    I can’t find any resources on how to deal with grief if you’ve already got ptsd or a trauma history. This article comes the closest. I had a hard time being with my family during the funeral period, as grieving is such a vulnerable experience and I just don’t feel safe. I see a therapist, but I’m really terrified of being isolated again by this grief. I don’t know how to get a healthy balance and it’s so scary to wonder if I’ll lose what progress I’ve made by withdrawing.

    I wish I could find more info like this. If you know of anything that may help, please let me know. I’m not afraid of doing the hard work of recovery. But I’m afraid of being alone again.

  • Gabrielle Pitcher says:

    My losses are in such mass, I won’t even speak of them all. Just the most important ones.
    My grandpa, my best friends step dad murdered, and my boyfriends dad died in 3 months of eachother, the following month, my cousin died in a wreck 5days before christmas, one of my oldest life long friends dies the next easter, my step mom that june, my god mom 11 months after my grand mom, and my real mom died in my hands 2months before her. 3weeks later, my cousin was killed, then my dad died in a motorcycle crash, my aunt choked to death 9months after that, then my other grandma died 11 months after them. Then, my moms best friend, one of my best friends and my great aunt in the last year. My other grandpa passed away, and his wife hid his death from me for the last 6 months, and now shes dead. Died june 1st. I found out the 15th, through her obituary, that my grandpa died too!
    , I’m at a point where I am afraid to go outside. I have become dissociated with everyone. I don’t care about anything. I am so overwhelmed, its not something I can ever seem to put into words.
    I’m not crazy. I’m mentally stalled because of everything but not crazy. I don’t want pills. So what can I do?

  • Rosemary Tippens says:

    I had a stress heart attack two ueRs ago. Followed by foot surgery that left me in pain, nerve damage, and a shrinkng calf muscle and I was told I have bone on bone in my foot. My loved one cared for me but had 3 surgeries one biospy and was told he didn’t have cancer. I called the lab took him right back to the Dr that told him he had aggressive cancer of the bladder. I obtained CT scans that showed renal cancer that had spread to liver and lymph nodes. He died one month later with me by his side in hospice. I cared for him using my knee walker. After he died I had exhaustion and bronchitis for one month. I was then a passenger in a car accident where the vehicle was totalled. The other driver cited for careless driving. I have chronic pain depression anxiety grief and my foot Dr told me I am in no condition to work. Two children financially helped for a few months. Although I am waiting for a disability hearing review and being told I am in no condition to work my 2 children insist I job search and get a job. I have had interviews for 4 jobs but didn’t get an offer. I have another interview next week. Live in house manager with 6 pregnant women 5 days a week pay 340 a week plus food church based program. I am in chronic pain can t stand in foot too long and lack understanding from children. My son said well you can’t afford not to work and many ppl who are disabled work. At time if car accident I asked for ECG shows possible heart attack although I only had hips x-rayed and discharged despite palpitations hx of heart attacks and 100 per blocked right coranary have worked the past 5 years for a lady dr as her Nanny and now my hours have been cut to less than 15 hrs a month. Neurologist said adjustment disorder with anxiety and depression. Accident dr said anxiety and depression. Neurologist said com.plicared case was nerve damage trauma or medical from foot surgery. I have a crappy hmo will see primary in Oct ask for psych referral? Very depressed about my situation , social isolation and lack of understanding from family. Used all my retirement money to pay for health care and 500 month health insurance monthly premiums past two years. Now very poor healthcare hmo running out of money up a creek without a paddle.

    • Dear Rosemary,
      I am truly sorry for all you’ve gone through, but glad you could find the words to tell you story. Since I’m not a psychiatrist, psychologist, or grief counselor, I am unable to advise you on the next step to take in life. My writing and responses to posts come from ongoing research and extensive grief experience. It seems to me that the best thing you could do for yourself right now is to see a licensed health professional. I think it would also be helpful to continue to write about your experiences.

  • Pj says:

    Dear Harriet,
    Your article touched me as I too have suffered multiple losses in less than one year. I do find myself grieving in isolation as my sisters have all drifted apart and my husband and friends don’t really know what to do or say. The pain is difficult especially at night when you are awaken by bad dreams and find the night then only filled with loneliness and anxiety. All four of my parents died , biological mom and dad, and the step parents. I wish there were more support groups for cumulative grief as it can be very difficult to negotiate through while trying to have a “normal” life.

    • Dear PJ,
      Your idea of a cumulative grief support group is an excellent one. Maybe you should start it! You could send out feelers in your community via a letter to the editor, a church announcement, or social media. Talking with only one person who has walked the same walk can help tremendously.

      Harriet