Secondary Losses – Introduction

Another round of GriefShare is just about to begin! I am elated and relieved to be going through this curriculum again with a support group. The first time I attended a session, last Fall, I did not expect it to be beneficial. I actually planned to go to one meeting, decide it was unhelpful, and move on to either creating my own group or continuing on without one. On the first night, I was welcomed warmly with a smile by a man whom I understood attended my church, but didn’t really know. “I am so glad to see you tonight. I’ve been praying for you. I was sorry to hear about your great loss, and I hope you will find some comfort here.” Don had lost both of his parents, a brother, several friends, and two wives. He knew loss. Also in the room was a woman who had lost two husbands and then her home after a family dispute, a man who had been married to his wife for 57 years before death parted them, and a young woman whose younger brother had passed away suddenly and unexpectedly. All of the people in the room had lost loved ones to death, and though we were grieving differently, we were instantly connected as fellow journeyers on this path that none of us had intended to take.

On that first night, Don told us that each time we shared our stories, that brought us closer to healing. Taking this step of processing trauma out loud helped each of us to bridge the gap that had been created between our hearts and our heads. After we each shared a brief synopsis of what had brought us to the group – our loss – we began watching a video. That first video was titled, “Is This Normal?” And if nothing had helped me the entire rest of the session, it would have been okay because knowing that I was not strange or alone in this was the best piece of comfort I could have received in that moment. The relief I felt after two hours of GriefShare kept me coming back for the rest of the year.

What Is Secondary Loss

In one of the sessions, we discussed in more detail an idea that was new to me by name but not unfamiliar in experience: secondary losses. With the death of a loved one, there is a primary loss of that person and all he or she meant to you. Secondary losses are the rest of the weight of a life without that person in your life. They are the rest of the equation – the things that you no longer have because the person with whom they were associated is gone. Secondary losses are not secondary because they are less significant, but rather because they are a result of the primary loss.

One evening a few weeks after my husband’s unexpected death, I went to the grocery store by myself. List in hand, I reached for and placed each item into my cart with care but also with pleasure. It feels nice to get something done. But suddenly, in the breakfast isle, I realized that I no longer needed to put Eric’s favorite cereal box into the cart. He didn’t need the cereal, he wasn’t here to eat it. In fact, he would never eat cereal again. Right there, in the middle of the store, I started crying. The tears poured down my cheeks just as fast as I wiped them away. I tried to finish the list, but my mind was mush at that point. I don’t remember if I checked out before I exited the store. Why was it so significant that I did not need to spend another $3.25 that day? It was not about the money. I would have spent any amount of money to need to buy that cereal for him again. My break down came from feeling the weight of a secondary loss… a realization that this thing is no longer true because Eric is no longer here.

There are several different kinds of secondary losses, and people categorize them differently, but the way I have experienced them is this:

Types of Secondary Loss

  1. Secondary Losses: Lifestyle & Tangible Realities
  2. Secondary Losses: Roles & Relationships
  3. Secondary Losses: Identity & Identifiers
  4. Secondary Losses: Hopes & Dreams

In further posts I’ll go into detail about each of these types of loss, but here is a quick summary for each type of loss:

Loss of lifestyle and tangible realities

If you’ve lost the main person in your life who provided financially, this category of loss is likely to affect you significantly. The biting reality of the secondary loss of income is evident in your wallet. If you had been paying great deals of money for the care of your recently deceased loved one, the opposite might be true, that the excess money which once was budgeted for them is now flowing like a muddy stream back into your bank account. Whether or not you are financially thrown into insecurity, there are other things that you may or may not be able to or want to afford now that your loved one is gone – including property or a business and things you may begin doing that you might not have otherwise.

Loss of roles and relationships

When a person dies, a hole is left behind that either goes empty or needs to be filled. The relationship you had with this person is the reason for the depth of your grief. This hole is especially noticeable in the roles and responsibilities they once attended to that they no longer can. These secondary losses are about who the person was to you as well as what they accomplished that is now going undone. Some examples include: husband, co-parent, daily companion, best friend, care-taker, sexual partner, errand runner, garbage man, gas pumper, bathroom cleaner, party schmoozer, encourager, confidant, etc. Furthermore, because of the way you have been impacted by the death of your loved one, it may make sense to move away from or spend time with different people, so there is potential for a secondary loss of communities you once enjoyed.

Loss of identity and identifiers

The person who you loved was also likely connected to you with a title – your identifiers. You were his mother, her husband, the best friend. Now that death has parted you, the title no longer applies – at least not like it used to. That relationship you once had in life will never be invalid because you will always have the memories and significance of what it meant to be connected to them, but not in the same way. Loss also changes people. If you’ve been through loss, you may notice a change in your personality, character, brain function, and interests. For better or for worse, this is the secondary loss of who you used to be.

Loss of plans, dreams, and hopes for the future

Whether or not your loved one died suddenly or unexpectedly, it is likely that you anticipated that you would have more time with them. In the time you thought you would have, you probably made plans, had dreams and held onto hopes about how you would share it. This type of secondary loss is common as well for almost any primary loss, but especially after the passing of someone who was very young.

Secondary Gains

It is well worth noting that while death, grief, and loss never feel “good,” that the process of dealing with death, grief and loss can be very good. Secondary gains are the silver linings on dark clouds of death and grief. While loss is rarely ideal, some very positive things may come as a result of it. Secondary gains can be found, I think, in each of the categories of loss. I will expound upon each of these further in the specific posts on each category of loss. Subscribe to get a notifications

Naming the loss, stealing its power

Grief is awful. It just is. I can’t tell you how many times I have put my pen to paper to write an open letter to the thief that threatens to steal my joy con-stant-ly. I’m often sad because my loved ones are no longer by my side, but usually it’s the secondary losses that catch me off guard, threaten to throw me into a breakdown situation, and have me walking around like a fool until I can straighten myself back to “normal.” My favorite psychologist (my dad) told me once that the triggers of trauma – those things that remind me of my loss in big and small ways – will lose their power over me when they become boring to my brain. I can push them toward boring by expecting but not fearing them, paying attention to them in a safe space, and taking the time necessary to process them. I have found that when I acknowledge the losses for what they are, a daily reality of the primary situation, it takes away their power to cause brain fog, anger, or desperation. It has helped me to write lists of my losses (such as this post for example), and to talk about them without saying things like, “it’s just a little or insignificant thing.”

The longer I wrestle with grief, the more confident I feel that I can make it through this, even better than before, and you can too. Grieving is hard. Let’s do it together.

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