What Is Compounded Grief?

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Compounded grief can be described as a series of losses that occur over a relatively brief period of time.

Compounded grief, also known as cumulative grief, occurs when multiple losses pile up over one another. An example of compounded grief is experiencing the loss of a friend or a loved one, followed by the loss of a pet, and then a few months later, the loss of a job as well, says Meghan Marcum, PsyD, chief psychologist at AMFM Healthcare.

A 2022 study notes that though the losses may have different causes, affect different areas of your life, and vary in their levels of intensity, they can be harder to cope with than individual losses because of the compounding effect.

Meghan Marcum, PsyD

Compounded grief is difficult because before the person has an opportunity to find healing, another—oftentimes unexpected—loss arises that makes it increasingly difficult to cope.

— Meghan Marcum, PsyD

This article explores the symptoms, potential causes, and diagnosis of compounded grief, as well as some coping strategies that may be helpful.

Symptoms of Compounded Grief

According to Dr. Marcum, these are some of the symptoms you may experience if you’re struggling with compounded grief:

  • Shock
  • Disbelief
  • Anger
  • Sadness
  • Guilt 
  • Regret
  • Anxiety 
  • Distress 
  • Yearning 
  • Helplessness 
  • Emotional numbness
  • A feeling of being overwhelmed
  • Inability to sleep (insomnia)
  • Loss of appetite
  • Isolation from friends and family
  • Difficulty functioning at work
  • Inability to perform everyday tasks like showering and paying bills

It may take several weeks or months for someone dealing with compounded grief to return to their baseline level of functioning, says Dr. Marcum.

Causes of Compounded Grief

These are some examples of losses that may occur and contribute to compounded grief:

  • Losing someone you knew or loved
  • Experiencing financial losses
  • Losing your job or business
  • Losing your pet
  • Getting divorced or breaking up with your partner 
  • Being diagnosed with a health condition
  • Watching a loved one battle a serious health condition
  • Losing your health, mobility, or cognitive abilities
  • Losing your home due to financial difficulties or a natural disaster
  • Losing your possessions or valuables
  • Losing your independence, rights, or sense of safety
  • Experiencing changes to your lifestyle or routine that are difficult to cope with

These are some groups of people that may be at greater risk of experiencing compounded grief than others, according to Dr. Marcum:

  • People living with depression, substance use, or other health conditions
  • People who lack social support in their lives
  • People who are routinely exposed to trauma, such as healthcare workers, social workers, or first responders
  • People who live in an environment where many losses are experienced at once, such as a war zone or a disaster-prone area
  • Older people, who may lose multiple loved ones and acquaintances in a relatively shorter period of time

Diagnosing Compounded Grief

If you or a loved one are struggling to cope with compounded grief, it can be helpful to see a mental healthcare provider for support. Your primary care doctor can refer you to an expert or you can ask loved ones for a referral.

It’s important to note that compounded grief is not an official diagnosis; however, it is similar to complicated grief, says Dr. Marcum. “Oftentimes, it may not require an official diagnosis since grief is a common experience that most of us face at some point in life.”

If your grief requires treatment, then depending on your symptoms, Dr. Marcum says you may be diagnosed with:

Coping With Compounded Grief

If you or someone you love are experiencing compounded grief, Dr. Marcum shares some strategies that can help:

  • Don't suppress your grief: It’s important to grieve each individual loss so that you can begin to accept it and move forward. Processing your emotions is difficult but necessary. Not taking the time to process each loss or repressing your feelings can further compound your feelings of grief.
  • Honor your losses: It can be helpful to honor your losses with a symbolic ritual or gesture that means something to you. This can help give you a sense of closure and bring you closer to acceptance.
  • Practice self-care: Be compassionate toward yourself and take care of yourself physically and emotionally.
  • Keep loved ones close: Spend time with friends and family. Talk to them about how you’re feeling and let them know if they can help you in any way.
  • Give yourself time: Don’t put time limits or unrealistic expectations on your grief. Thinking you should be over your losses by now is not helpful. Grief takes time to heal and compounded grief may take even longer. Be patient with yourself and give yourself time. 
  • Look for the meaning in life: Loss helps us put things in perspective and redefine what’s important to us in life. Use this opportunity to be more purposeful about the way you live your life. Do things that align with your values and bring you joy.
  • Seek help if you need it: Remember that if you’re struggling to cope, there are mental healthcare providers that can help. You can also choose to join a support group for people experiencing similar losses.

A Word From Verywell

If you’ve suffered multiple losses and are experiencing compounded grief, you may feel angry, sad, scared, anxious, or numb. You may struggle to function and have difficulty eating and sleeping. 

Try to focus on one day at a time and one loss at a time. Work through your emotions around each one and seek support from loved ones or professionals if you need it. Eventually, you will be able to accept your losses, regain your equilibrium, and move forward with renewed meaning and purpose.

3 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Scheinfeld E, Gangi K, Nelson EC, Sinardi CC. Compounded loss and coping during the COVID-19 pandemic. Health Commun. 2022;37(10):1316-1328. doi:10.1080/10410236.2021.1886413

  2. Pop-Jordanova N. Grief: Aetiology, symptoms and management. Pril (Makedon Akad Nauk Umet Odd Med Nauki). 2021;42(2):9-18. doi:10.2478/prilozi-2021-0014

  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Grief and loss.

By Sanjana Gupta
Sanjana is a health writer and editor. Her work spans various health-related topics, including mental health, fitness, nutrition, and wellness.