Secondary Losses: When Someone You Loves Dies, They're Not the Only Thing You Lose

When someone we love dies, we lose more than just that person. Though their specific absence is often what is most keenly and painfully felt; we often lose many other things too – generally things we did not anticipate losing. These other, subsequent losses are called secondary losses, and are usually more devastating and severe the more central your loved one was to your life. For example, spouses/partners, parents, children, and family-member caregivers are often hugely impacted by secondary loss.

What do we mean by this phrase secondary losses? Secondary losses are any loss that occur as the result of your primary loss – the death of your loved one. Secondary losses can be concrete or abstract, or somewhere in the middle.

Common examples of concrete secondary losses are: loss of income, loss of housing, loss of friends, loss of property, and loss of help, although there are many other examples we could come up with here.

Abstract secondary losses might include: loss of identity, loss of dreams for the future, loss of security, loss of belonging, and loss of faith, although, again, these are just a few examples.

Many of the most painful and surprising secondary losses have to do with the way that our relationships with surviving loved ones are impacted. Perhaps, if you and your spouse had a group of friends who are all couples, you may find yourself “the odd one out,” or as though you no longer fit in with that group, and thus you might lose your primary support system. Or, sometimes within families there are bitter disagreements about medical decisions or finances that become rifts within families – more loss. Relational secondary losses are particularly devastating, because it is in grief that we most need the support and love of others. Finding that in addition to the tremendous loss of our loved one, we also lose others is a terrible shock.

Some secondary losses only become apparent with the passage of time. Sometimes we learn difficult and surprising things about our loved one that are challenging to accept, and so we lose our previous understanding of them and who they were. Sometimes we have to sell a house, and usually we get rid of a lot of their possessions – these are losses too. Most of us will experience upsurges of grief when major life events, such as weddings, graduations, and births, approach and our loved one is not there to experience them with us. For grieving parents, seeing the “milestones” of others around the same age that your child would have been is extremely painful. Each of these is a loss.

Perhaps the most challenging and difficult to navigate secondary loss, however, is the loss of identity. This can mean a lot of things (i.e. you are now the sole breadwinner, you have to take care of things you have never done before), but we are really meaning loss of identity in an existential way. For example, if your only child dies, are you still a mother or father? If your spouse dies, are you still a husband, a wife? If you cared for your elderly parent, are you still a caregiver, or still someone’s child, for that matter? These are really painful questions to confront. And, for the record, our answer if you are asking yourself any of these questions is a resounding YES, but we also know that answer might not feel so clear to you right now. Feeling unsure of your identity after the death of your loved one is also a loss.

It can be tempting to minimize secondary losses. After all, these other losses are not your loved one – what can compare to that? Furthermore, the people in your life may not acknowledge or validate secondary losses, and it can be uncomfortable to bring them up or to share how you’re feeling about them. Unfortunately, we have also heard from clients that their loved ones, though often well-intentioned, may minimize their loss. Please know that it is your perception of what has been lost that’s important. No one else had the relationship that you did with your loved one, so no one else can claim your experience, or truly know what secondary losses have resulted from it, nor how painful these losses have been.

As you work through the pain of your grief, it is important to also recognize, validate, and grieve these secondary losses. The first step to doing this is acknowledging what’s there – what exactly has been lost. Each loss deserves to be mourned, and grieving secondary losses is an important part of holistically and healthily grieving your loved one and your relationship with them.

Some people find it helpful to journal. Others find that creating art of some kind can be healing. Others still would rather just talk, or pray. Expressing your grief, sharing with others about your experience, and receiving external support and validation, can be tremendously healing. Do whatever feels right for you, but please do take time to acknowledge all that has been lost: you have the right to grieve ALL of your losses.

* We would

love to hear from you in the comments. What secondary losses have you experienced? What impact have these losses had on your life? Is there anything that you’ve discovered that has been helpful?

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