The Ripple Effect

The Ripple Effect

by Deb Sims, MS,RNCS,LCSW

If, right now, you are mourning the death of someone you loved, I don't have to tell you how you are feeling. You know the emotions well. You probably also know how many other areas of your life have been touched.

However, others who have not experienced such a loss may not have a clue. We tend to think only in terms of the death, not of the effect it has on all aspects of our lives. If you made a list of all the things that have changed, how many things would be on that list? Actually, let's not limit this to the death of someone we love. There are additional death processes, such as divorce or loss of health. Divorce is a death of a relationship. If the person has already experienced a death of someone they love in their life, then divorce may re-open that grief. Loss of health may mean the loss of life as we knew it and the loss of many of the things we used to do.

Death has a ripple effect. There is not a single thing that isn't affected by the experience. No matter how much you read about others' experiences, you can't be prepared for the intense emotions that engulf you when you have suffered a great personal loss.

In the early stages you'll wonder why everything around you is going on as if nothing happened, while your life is frozen in a time warp of pain. So, it won't surprise you when I say that it will take two or three years to work through a death or a divorce or the acceptance of a major illness that dramatically limits your functioning.

Let's examine this ripple effect closer.

Take out a paper and write down the major loss you have had. Now think back over the past two years.

  1. Have you experienced any other losses in the last two years? What were they and how did you feel? How did you handle those losses?
  2. Have you had health problems in the last two years? Again, what were these problems? What emotions were associated with them and how did you handle it?
  3. Have there been changes in any of your relationships: marriage, job, children moving out, relocation or any other major changes in the last two years? How have you dealt with these changes?

This is an inventory of what has happened in your life prior to your major trauma.

Now let's look at what has happened as a result of the death process.

Make an inventory of the things that have changed for you since this major death process.

  1. Think about your financial state. Has that been altered?
  2. Have you had to change your living arrangements?
  3. Have you had to alter your work situation?
  4. Are there activities that you can no longer do because of this loss?
  5. Have relationships been altered in your life because of this?
  6. Add any other changes that come to mind.

What you've just done is assess what has happened since your major loss (and I say it this way because I've included death, divorce and major health changes). You've looked at things that may have influenced the severity of this loss. You've evaluated how you have handled previous losses and then you've looked at all the things that have been affected by this loss. This is the ripple effect. It helps explain why death processes are not simple to go through. There is not one of us who has asked to experience the horrible emptiness and pain that come with a major loss.

But we need to understand that the feelings of grief won't hurt us if we face them and work our way through them. Read the statement carefully. We are already hurting desperately. There is no way around grief. We can't avoid it or deny it. We may try, but it will always be there and far more destructive when we attempt not to work through it.

The only way to deal with grief is to face it head on and work through it and come out on the other side. The grief work is hard and we usually can't do it alone. But it is ultimately less painful than avoiding it. We will not forget the person we love. We are not talking about getting over grief. We are talking about working through the grief. On the other side is growth.

What does it mean to grow through grief?

  1. It means developing a new appreciation and respect for life and the people who are apart of it.
  2. It means no longer taking things or people for granted.
  3. It means growth; growth allows us to become aware of our mutual need for each other.
  4. And it opens us to the spiritual or sacred dimensions of life.

Sometimes you will feel worse before you feel better. It is safe to say that the first year after a major loss will be… shall I say, awful? But you can come to the end of that first year and recognize that it had some purpose and direction. You survived, and that is a significant accomplishment. You may also be able to look back on new relationships established from helping each other.

The second year is often called the lonely year. You made it through the first year and you may think things should return to normal. But, in actuality, this is the year that you realize how lonely it can be without that person you loved. Or if it is an illness, then this is the year you come to grips with all the things you can no longer do. Once the second year brush with reality is past, you will be ready to start getting on with reorganizing your life. This doesn't mean there is no more grieving. However, you will find that you have more good days than before.

By the end of the third year, you may again have what seems like a setback. But this is actually a safe time to finish work that you couldn't do before. When this is done, the pain of your loss should be decreased to a point where it finally seems manageable.

Where will you be at year four? If you have worked through the grief, you will find that growth has occurred. A sense of confidence and strength will be there. You have endured the worst and lived through it and grown. You are a different person and perhaps even a better person than when you started. Many will find themselves reaching out to others to help them. All, who allow themselves to, will find compassion for themselves and others.

When times get rough through this process, you might repeat this affirmation: (Affirmations are positive statements that affirm for us what we hope to accomplish.)

As I go through this grief, I will also grow through the experience and I will walk in sunshine again.


Deits, Bob. Life after Loss. Tucson, AZ: Fisher Books, 1988.

Fitzgerald, Helen. The Mourning Handbook. New York: Simon and Schuster Inc., 1994.

Hickman, Martha. Healing After Loss. New York: Avon Books, Inc., 1994.

Peck, F. Scott. The Road Less Traveled. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1978.

Debbie Sims is a Certified Clinical Nurse Specialist in Adult Psychiatric Nursing, has a Masters degree in Clinical Psychology, is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, and a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. She maintains a private practice in counseling but her devotion is to her position as Editor for Beyond Indigo an Internet web site for those who are grieving.

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