Secondary Losses: Roles & Relationships

Once A Relationship, Now A Loss

When someone close to you dies, a hole is left where a relationship used to be. In the place of your loved one is now pain, and reminders of his or her absence. The truth is that the unique relationship you had with that person, and your love for them, is the reason for the depth of your grief. Of course, understanding why you feel sad doesn’t necessarily help you to feel better. Yet, putting the pieces together as you realize that many things were lost as a result of one death can be helpful in processing the length and depth of your unique grief process.

Where you used to be, there is a hole in the world, which I find myself constantly walking around in the daytime, and falling into at night. – Edna St. Vincent Millay

That brings me to my purpose for writing this series about secondary losses. There are no rules for how to grieve. None. Not even one. I wrote about that HERE. But it has been helpful in my own personal grief journey to sift through the large and small losses that came and come as a result of my husband’s death, to face them, grieve them, and give myself grace when I still feel the pain of them.

This is the second type of secondary losses I want to cover: the losses of roles and relationships. Because of his or her death, there are things that will not get done unless they are reassigned to someone else. Your relationship with your loved one is gone, but so also might be the friends you used to spend time with because things have changed – in you, in them, in general – since your life-altering personal tragedy. Life looks different now because when your loved one left, so did the roles and relationships you once knew.

Secondary Losses Series Links

Secondary Losses: Introduction
Secondary Losses: Lifestyle & Surroundings
Secondary Losses: Roles & Relationships (You are here!)
Secondary Losses: The Me I Used To Be
Secondary Losses: Hopes & Dreams (coming soon)

Honey, can you get the…

At the beginning of this series, I shared my excitement about GriefShare. In one of the videos from this session, there was a skit of a man who was fixing something in the garage. The phone rang, so he called out to his wife, “can you get that?” The phone kept ringing and he asked again,” “Honey, can you get the…” And then he realized that she was not there to get the phone.

I know that feeling. The person who had been there and filled that responsibility or role no longer is and no longer can. My late husband, Eric, used to take out the garbage. To this day, I have to overcome a large mental obstacle just to do that chore myself. He had also been the person to pump gas in our cars. I had told him I hated doing it, so he had promised me on our wedding day that if he could help it, I would never have to do it again. Now, I keep a pair of his old gloves in my car and put them on whenever I go to the pump. Eric was also the bathroom cleaner, dishwasher, griller, family scheduler, quick errand runner, and always the driver on family trips.

Relational Loss

The reason that we grieve is that we loved. If we did not care deeply in their life, we would have no need to mourn in their death. In the first week after Eric died, I recorded the following relational losses in my journal:

“The person with whom I had discussed everything was not there to comfort me when the love of my life lay motionless, because he was the one in the bed. As I wrote his obituary, chose his casket, and planned the funeral, Eric’s confident voice of reassurance was replaced with only an idea. When I looked into my son’s eyes to tell him that Daddy would not be coming home, my co-parent was neither there to comfort his son, nor to help me with the words. On the day that I buried my husband, I also let into the ground the body of the person with whom I had become one. Not only did part of me descend into that grave, but so did the warmth that held me at night.”

In your life, your deceased loved one might have been all or some of those things to you too. Maybe he or she was the person that you turned to for advice, comfort, “a favor,” a laugh, to exchange a knowing look, or even just to argue. Now that they have disappeared, not only is the person gone, but so are the ways in which you related to them. Some people call this “home.” They say things like, “home is wherever I’m with you,” or “your heart is my home.” Where do you belong now that your home is taken away?

Loss or change of relationships with others

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. When I moved away from our town of two years, I lost some relationships that were based – for the most part – on proximity. There was no bad-blood or negative feelings, they just simply weren’t the kinds of relationships that needed to be fostered over distance.

Some friendships changed because my perspectives and sensitivities were altered. For quite a while after my husband’s death, it was very difficult for me to be around other married people – especially those who were also young, also had little children, and were also in ministry. I did not stop loving or caring for those couples, but the pain of interacting with “whole” families made me feel utterly broken. Watching affectionate couples reminded me that my lover was gone. Seeing fathers with their kids stabbed at my sadness over my children’s fatherlessness. For a while I avoided my married parent friends.

There were other friendships, however, that really suffered either because I was hurt or because the other person was no longer sure how to relate to me. There were a couple friends who I perceived did not treat my late husband with respect during his life, and I found it difficult not to hold anger toward them after his death. I don’t remember anyone saying something insensitive enough to offend me or make me want to unfriend them, but a couple of once-close friends did choose to say nothing. The absence of their words caused a rift between us.

In some of those relationships, we have done the hard work to return to friendship. For me it’s been reframing and realizing that although one person is missing from me and from my children, the three of us are still a whole family. I enjoy the perspectives I get to have when talking with married friends. I’ve also been through the process of extending grace to my friends who cared, but just didn’t know what to say, and also asking for grace from friends who felt hurt that I avoided them. Unfortunately, some friendships could not come back from the hurt, and they ended shortly after my husband died.

Secondary gains

Navigating through my new lists of things to do or let go that had once been covered by my late husband was hard work… but it has also been affirming in some ways. Before he died, I used to say that I could never live without him. I am often sad that he is no longer by my side, but now I know without a doubt that I can live without him and I am doing a pretty good job. I’m just gonna say it: I was always better at loading the car. I used to play a lot of Tetris, and it paid off. And now I get to do that job. I have gained some autonomy in doing things the way that I want to do them. There are several things that I still do not take care of, either because I have found someone else to do them, or because I have declared them unnecessary.

Some voids left in my life that cannot be filled by another person. It goes without saying that because Eric was a unique individual, I would never be able to replicate the relationship I had with him – and I wouldn’t want to! Other roles and holes, though, can and should be filled with other relationships. I have gained people in my life, some who I knew before Eric died and others who I have met since, with whom I can relate, give, and receive help in needed ways. I have friends with whom I can talk through big decisions, watch late-night tv, and giggle about interesting happenings. I am thankful to have people in my life to talk about parenting, who can support me on my worst mommy days, and build me up. I also have more intentional time to devote to caring for my friends and family members; to encourage and build them up as well. I’m blessed to have guy friends and family members who serve as older male influences in my boys’ lives. Many of these friends are people who I would not have known if my location hadn’t changed.

The most substantial secondary gain is the one I have because of the closeness I get to share with my parents, and all that trickles down because of that. I moved into the third floor of my parent’s apartment complex style home two years ago. We formed a multi-generational household where we work and play together daily in everything from cooking and chores to projects and entertainment. The role and relationship changes are mostly positive, and I consider them secondary gains. If Eric was still alive, I would be living with him. I am sure I would love my life. But because he is not alive, I have an opportunity to grow and experience joy with other people I love. My kids certainly miss their father and I ache for what they don’t even know they have lost. Yet, we have found invaluable treasure in the way they get to know their Granna (my mom) and their Papa (my dad). At the moment, my grandma (Grammie Burkes) is also living with us while she recovers from knee surgery. There are four generations under one roof right now! Of course we inconvenience each other sometimes. We annoy one another from time to time. We hurt each other and have to ask for forgiveness plenty. But ultimately, we are only growing closer to each other. We eat delicious meals made from different cooks, we laugh at each other’s jokes, we help with projects, we carry each other’s burdens, and we all delight in my sons – “the boys.” We have a saying: We’re Better Together. And we are.


Grief Work

Grieving is exhausting. It’s mentally, emotionally, physically, and spiritually draining. There may come a point, however, that you want to learn from or at least release some of your grief. The process of mourning a loved one will never fully be complete, and you aren’t going to “move on” but it is possible to move forward, taking and learning from what you have experienced, into a life that can hold enough love for what you have lost and hope for what you still have. Here are some prompts to get you started:

Take a look at the things you lost beyond the initial person or thing. Are there things you lost as a result of your primary loss that you have not taken time to recognize and grieve?

What do you miss about the relationship you shared with your loved one?

In what ways have you seen your roles change since suffering a personal loss?

Which relationships have changed since your loss for better or for worse?

If you find yourself overwhelmed because you’re trying to fill the shoes of the person who is gone as well as shoulder your own responsibilities, who could you ask to come alongside you to carry some of the burden with you?

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