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The Domino Effect - Grief and loss

Updated: Sep 26, 2022

Life is full of ups and downs; hellos and goodbyes; beginnings and endings. We experience so many firsts: the first tooth, the first kiss, the first job, the first child, and many more. On the other hand, we also experience a lot of lasts: the last day of elementary school, the last day we saw our grandfather alive, the last day that our child permanently lived at home. At first glance, many of our ‘firsts’ and ‘lasts’ may seem like disconnected events; however, every new beginning and ending in life bears a cumulative effect that builds on past experiences.

Cumulative: increasing or increased in quantity, degree, or force by successive additions.

-Oxford dictionary online

This article is about how our experiences that were once firsts, eventually become lasts and how each new first or last is connected to past ones in a cumulative fashion. The longer we live, the more we have experienced loss, which creates the domino effect—the cumulative effect of all of our losses like dominoes that begin falling down one after another. Have you ever seen a video of someone setting up a huge and intricate domino pattern? To start those dominoes falling, one must simply push the first one ever so slightly, which taps the second, and the third, until one by one they all cascade down.

This domino effect is similar to what happens to us with regards to grief and loss. For example, let’s say you go through a divorce or the loss of parent and experience the grief of a notable loss. As time goes on, you will also experience more minor losses—like the loss of a pet, job, health, dreams—and you may be surprised to find that you feel just as grieved as you did by the more notable losses.

Even losses we have chosen, or consider positive, such as selling our home, graduating from college, or even changing our personal style, can trigger grief and loss. The principle is that the longer we have lived, the more losses we have experienced and thus the more dominoes there are to fall. This often surprises us. “Why,” we ask, “am I reacting the way that I am? Why am I so depressed? Why am I not getting over this the way that I thought I would? Why, if this loss represents a relief to me, am I still so sad?”

We will call the first domino in this line of losses, the trigger domino. Let’s imagine a 48-year-old woman named Sarah, who had an older sister that had died unexpectedly; two years before. Then presently, Sarah is given a promotion which causes her to change work teams, just around the time when her youngest son graduates high school and anticipates leaving home for college. In this scenario, the trigger domino—the catalyst for the feelings of loss—would be her child graduating from high school and going off to college. These thoughts about him going off to college activate emotions which in turn trigger unconscious feelings regarding the change at work and then trigger past emotions regarding the death of her sister. Sarah, finds herself incredibly down, crying and depressed and cannot figure out why she is feeling so much sorrow, especially because two of those three experiences, could be considered very positive. She had been promoted and watched her child graduate high school. Nonetheless, behind those achievements remain unconscious thoughts and feelings of change and loss. The thought of saying goodbye to her son, triggers the goodbyes she has had to say at work, and then triggers the goodbye she had to say to her sister two years before.

To be human is to have limitations. We have limited energy, limited health, limited resources and limited time. Most of us tend to overestimate our resilience: the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness or the ability of a substance or object to spring back into shape; elasticity. Therefore, as one change or loss accumulates upon another, we can minimize their connection to each other. We are likely to compartmentalize our experiences and miss how they are collectively affecting us.

Here are some of the common symptoms of grief and loss:

Feelings of fatigue, headaches, depression, crying, hopelessness,

feeling floaty or disassociated, forgetful, sad, impulsive, changes in appetite, changes in sleep, anxiety, and suicidality.

If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, consider this exercise:

  1. Make a list of the things over the past five to ten years that might fall into the category of loss. Remember that some losses, may be positive at first glance, but can still represent change.

  2. Talk to a close friend, counselor, or pastor who will listen and give encouragement and guidance.

  3. Be patient with yourself. Give yourself time to heal and do not criticize yourself for being sad, confused or disoriented.

  4. Make a list of possible relationship connections and activities that might boost your level of well-being.

  5. Pray and ask God to come alongside you and comfort you.

  6. Accept that there are different developmental seasons in life and that personal growth is available in each season.

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