A Grief Greater than the Sum of its Parts

Understanding Grief / Understanding Grief : Litsa

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I learned a new word recently – ending. It was coined by physician Robert Webster, describing the last living member of a lineage or a species. I was chatting with a woman who didn’t have kids, nor did she plan to. Her parents and only sibling, who also had no children, had all died. Though she described a wonderful ‘found family’, she’d always sought a word to describe this feeling of being the last of her biological family. When she learned the word endling she tried it on for size and has been using it ever since.

She described comfort in a word for the aspect of her loss that was often overlooked. She felt being an 'endling' conveyed something bigger than "my parents and only sibling have died".

I love that she has the word endling. There is a lot to say about that unique experience and loss. But this isn’t an article about endlings. It's an article about the "something bigger' this woman referenced. A something that goes beyond just the experience of being an endling.

In my work as a grief therapist and in our griever Hub, I’m reminded of this something bigger often. I think of it every time I speak with someone who has experienced the death of their last living child, or their only child. I think of it when I speak to someone who is a refugee or has emigrated and learns the last living member of their family in their home country has left or died. I thought of it when I read about Bruce Springsteen’s (very griefy) album, Letters to You, written when he became the last living member of his original band. I thought of it when I recently talked to a childless couple who had experienced their fourth miscarriage, one that they had decided would be their last as they were going to stop IVF treatments.

There are some losses for which the grief is somehow greater than the sum of its parts.

These losses mark not just the loss of a person (or people) – something immense and devastating completely on its own. They also mark the end of something else – something bigger.

That ‘something’ can be obvious and nameable – the loss of a biological family or a band. Or it can be more difficult to describe. A loss of someone who represented a connection to home, a loss of parenthood, of childhood, the first-hand experience and memory of a time or place.

A death is always more than the loss of the person. We’ve talked countless times about the secondary losses that accompany every loss. Who knows, maybe these are just deaths that carry with them extra-big secondary losses?

But I think it is more than that.

I imagine it a bit like a Lego kit. When you first open the kit, all you see is a messy box of individual legos. But once you put it all together you have something else that feels like so much more – a farm or a dinosaur or The Millennium Falcon.

It isn’t just the secondary losses connected to that loss. It is that the nature of certain losses, in combination with other losses or circumstances, add up to something so much bigger – something that other people often don’t fully see or appreciate. The see the messy box of legos. But you see the unique nature and combination of these losses – something so much greater once they’re all together.

I wish there was better language for it, an easier way to give this grief words (somehow I doubt my lego analogy will do you much good in articulating grief greater than the sum of its parts).

Short of that, I wish I could tell you that this article is transitioning to helpful tips or practical tools.

I’m sorry – I don’t have tips and tools.

All that I have is an assurance that this unique aspect of loss, hard as it is to put into words, isn’t going unseen.

We see the countless endlings out there.

We see the many parents who no longer have a single living child.

We see the tens of thousands of immigrants and refugees who no longer have family in their homeland.  

We see the devastated and exhausted IVF couples who have just decided they don’t have it in them to risk another failed round or another miscarriage.

We see everyone who stands alone as the living end of a community, a team, a band, an era.

For whatever it's worth, we see you. We understand that your loss is not simply the messy box of Legos - it is also the enormous reality they build.

Experienced this grief greater than the sum of its parts? Tell us about it!

We invite you to share your experiences, questions, and resource suggestions with the WYG community in the discussion section below.

We invite you to share your experiences, questions, and resource suggestions with the WYG community in the discussion section below.

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After writing online articles for What’s Your Grief for over a decade, we finally wrote a tangible, real-life book!

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9 Comments on "A Grief Greater than the Sum of its Parts"

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  1. Fay Evans  February 26, 2024 at 2:34 pm Reply

    I am 70yrs old. I was born & raised in Wales. I have lived in the US for longer than I lived in the UK. Could not have children, neither could my sister. My father died over 30yrs ago. My dearest Sister died at the height of Covid. I could not go home to be with her as no vaccines were available at the time. My darling Mum died 17 months later. Both my sister & Mum had a horrible end. I was the only one left to sort out their estates. In addition they both had cats who they adored. My Mum had lived in the same little house for 70yrs. It was filled with antiques that belonged to my Grandmother & Great Grandmother. Losing my childhood home was like another death. The grief & sorrow I feel are overwhelming. My sister died at the end of 2020. My Mum died mid 2022. Traveling back & forth to the UK during Covid multiple times was absolute HELL. ( My husband could not accompany me as he is disabled). I am an “ endling”. I am unable to come to come to terms with my losses. I feel unhinged & unthethered. Nothing seems to help. Will this awful feeling I have ever end?

  2. Endling in Waiting  February 13, 2024 at 8:13 am Reply

    Either my sister or I will be the endling of our family. Our parents are both dead. No aunts or uncles. Neither of us have children, and don’t regret that fact. Being the youngest, I have always lived under the expectation that I will be the endling, and I guess I sort of own that. For a long time, even when I was younger, my outlook was very much colored and informed by this possibility. For me it’s just probability, not anything unthinkable. But my older sister seems more unsettled by the prospect of her possibly being that person, however (since older siblings don’t always go first). We have about 20-25 years to figure it all out, if we live full lifespans. As for me, I am comforted by the possibility that if I am an endling, that my experience might be exactly the experience of the human race. After all, as of now we have to assume that humans are the only intelligent race in the universe – no other intelligences to converse with or relate to. I just want to be able to continue to clearly articulate my unique experience to the world, rather than wallow in any unhappiness, although I know sadness will always be part of my future.

  3. Mark M  December 29, 2023 at 10:42 pm Reply

    Thank you for this article. I recently retired from being the social worker at a nursing home, and for six years before that I was the director of spirituality at another nursing home and have also worked a year as a hospice chaplain. I spent nearly 20 years in church ministry. I’ve been in the middle of the muck of grief quite often so I assumed that when I lost my own wife last January that I would be equipped with all the tools needed to navigate my own grief. To a large extent, that might be true, but I also had enough experience to know that going it totally alone can put a person in a microcosm of despair where one cannot see that they are in it. So, I did talk to professionals, friends, and a couple of coworkers. What helped the most was realizing that the dreams my wife and I had were still valid dreams and that I would do her memory no honor if I let those dreams die along with her. So, that was helpful. I found this article after reading the one about disposing of a deceased loved one’s belongings, which is another great article and thank you for that one, as well.

    What I want to offer up to you is a word for this grief that is larger than the sum of its parts. It only came to me when you wrote that you didn’t currently have a word for it. I also write a podcast and a blog [reference removed by admin] and since the end of November I have been reviewing Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. one of those habits is synergy, the thing that happens when people get together and creatively brainstorm and what happens is that the result is greater than the sum of the parts, or as I talk about it, 2+2=25. So, your setting is quite different, but energy is energy and so I believe that synergy is synergy, regardless of whether we are talking about goal-setting or grief. So, I think maybe the term you are looking for might be “Synergistic Grief.” Yes, I think that hits the nail right on the head. I think it might even sometimes become complicated synergistic grief when people who are all affected by the phenomenon commiserate and do the opposite of brainstorming and I guess as I write this it might be called griefstorming. I’ve seen it and you probably have too where people get together and talk about how horrible it is that this has happened and how will they be able to continue on and they wallow in each other’s misery to the extent that when they part, they feel worse than when they got together.

    Anyway, use this if it is helpful. I think that there is a dynamic of synergistic grief involved in my own process because of dynamics in my wife’s family as well as the fact that I moved from Texas to Ohio to start a life with her and much of my extended family has dissipated hither and yon so that now I am in a place where I didn’t grow up, I’m learning to make it home, and I’m finding my chosen family around me now. Pursuing what is now my lifelong dream with relentless intent is the core of my healing process. Thank you for the work you do. I’ve bookmarked your site and I look forward to reading more. Blessings to you and Happy New Year.

  4. ~k  December 22, 2023 at 5:26 pm Reply

    Litsa- Thank you for your writings, it is so appreciated!

  5. Flo Armstrong  December 22, 2023 at 4:21 am Reply

    I became an endling having lost a brother in 2017 ,,my other brother (who was always my rock in 2021 and my mum in 2022 .i was adopted at birth and had a wonderful upbringing in a very large busy house and had lots of aunts ,uncles and grandparents . I have a wonderful husband ,4 children ,6 grandchildren and yet at the age of 61 I feel so lost .I find myself constantly listening to 70s music and thinking of childhood like I’m trying to grasp on to it and yet that comfort also brings me pain .The strangest thing is not having anyone left that remembers events /family members or to clarify things I’ve forgotten .i feel cut adrift .reading this article I realise others are also endlings and my heart goes out to you …so much more than simple grief

  6. Julie  December 22, 2023 at 12:26 am Reply

    I read your article “A Grief Greater than the Sum of its Parts.” I definitely identify with it. I wish it had helped me to feel better and cope better with the multiple losses in my life. Unfortunately after reading it, now I just feel worse. I will hopefully find other articles that help me process my grief in a healthy way.

  7. Laurie  December 21, 2023 at 8:21 pm Reply

    “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion. We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof. For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song; and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion.

    How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?”

    (Psalm 137:1-4, KJV)

  8. Jan  December 21, 2023 at 7:19 pm Reply

    I’m glad that you mentioned the grief that comes from being the last in your lineage. I decided at a young age that I didn’t want children, and for decades I did not regret it. But now that I am much older, and my only sibling and both of my parents are dead, I have the awful feeling that I made a big mistake. I deeply love my mother, and as years go by and I reflect back, I am more and more amazed at what an amazing person she was. It is really sad for me to know that she will not have any heirs after I’m gone. The only thing that gives me any comfort is that I can see parts of my mother in myself almost every day, and the overwhelming majority is positive traits in myself, though there are a couple of shortcomings as well that I picked up from her. I take every opportunity I have to tell people, even people
    I don’t know well, how amazing my mother was, with specifics. I explain how she taught me to be a kind and compassionate person.

    • Flo Armstrong  December 22, 2023 at 7:42 am Reply

      I think we are all guilty of not realising what we had until later life ,I certainly didn’t ,I always thought grass was greener on the other side …it wasn’t ! Now so thankful for the childhood I had ,just wish I could have said it while I could


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