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Secondary Loss — one loss isn’t enough??!!

Secondary Loss — one loss isn’t enough??!!

By Litsa Williams

When we experience death the grief associated with the loss itself is excruciating.  There are the obvious things we “expect” (though it is hard to describe anything with grief as expected).  In the immediate, the pain of the loss can be all-consuming.  But in the weeks and months that follow there can be a sense that we are losing even more than just that person.  The world turns upside down and suddenly it feels like everything is changing or disappearing.

This snowball effect stems from the fact that death does not just create a single hole in one’s life.  Instead, the loss can impact many areas of one’s life, creating multiple losses from that “primary loss”.  Though it is easy to think that our grief is solely the grief of losing the person we cared for so deeply, our grief is also the pain of the other losses that were a result of the death.  You will hear these losses referred to as “secondary losses”, not in the sense that their impact is secondary, but rather that they are a secondary result of the primary loss.

Understanding the possibility of experiencing grief from these secondary losses can help build self-awareness and help identify complexities of our own grief.  Once we have identified these losses we are better equipped to face and mourn them.  We begin to understand that the whole of our grief is comprised of many parts, including the primary loss and the secondary losses.

So, what are secondary losses?  As with so many things in grief, we can’t tell you what secondary losses you will experience.  These losses are all unique to our own relationship with the person we have lost, personality, life situation, and other relationships.  But, we can talk about some common secondary losses to get you thinking about what secondary losses may be a part of your own grief experience.

The easiest to identify are often the loss of concrete things.  Some of these common concrete losses are:

Loss of income

Loss of a home

Loss of a business

Loss of financial security

Another type of loss that can be slightly more difficult to immediately identify, but can have a significant impact, is a loss of identity.  This can come from a change in how one defines oneself, as well as certain roles that may be lost as a result of the death.  Some of these losses can include:

Loss of relational identity (no longer a husband, wife, parent, sibling, grandparent, etc)

Loss of role as caregiver

New role as a caregiver (at the expense of other things)

Loss of life purpose (no longer a parent, no longer a caregiver)

Loss of self-confidence

Though a less defined category, beliefs can be lost or change as a result of a death. 

Loss of faith/belief system (this can be coupled with a loss of a support system from a church or faith community).

Loss of hope for the future.

Loss of goals/dreams that involved the person.

Loss of a sense of a life shared with another person.

Our support system can be impacted tremendously by a loss.  Deaths can bring out the best and worst in families, friends, and community.  There may be people who are more supportive than you ever imagined and there may be people you assumed would be there for you who were not.  This can result in additional losses:

Distance/loss of unsupportive friends.

Distance/loss of family relationships due to conflict resulting from death.

Loss of friends/family of the person who died.

Loss of community (if one has to move as a result of the death)

Distance/loss from people connected to the person who died (school community of a child,

support system of a parent’s assisted living or nursing home, co-workers of a spouse).

Changes in the way you relate to friends.

Over time there can be other losses that arise:

Loss of memories as they begin to fade.

Loss associated with giving away the belongings of the person.

The pain of watching others grieve the loss (children, parents)

A loss at important milestones (weddings, anniversaries, births, graduations without that person).

Learning difficult or unpleasant things about the person who died.

As you may have gathered from this list, these secondary losses can unfold over time.  There may be some you are acutely aware of immediately following a loss, and some may arise as the weeks, months, and years pass.  Being aware that these secondary losses may arise can help us self-assess when we are caught off guard by a new feeling of loss or pain.  These secondary losses are a normal part of our grief and need to be addressed and mourned.

So what can we do?  I wish I could give you an easy answer, but unfortunately, there is no single answer to that question.  A huge first step is acknowledging these secondary losses and their impact.  In order to mourn a loss, we have to start by recognizing that loss.  How we will mourn and adapt will vary depending on who we are and what the loss is.  Once you have identified these losses, consider other tools that work well for you in coping with grief.  We are huge proponents of finding creative ways to express the pain of losses through writing, photography, and other creative expressions.  Finding a support group with others who have experienced a similar loss (loss of a spouse, child, etc) may be helpful, as they may share similar secondary losses (though not necessarily).  Finally, begin looking for ways to take action to adapt to these losses.  Though this can feel impossible at first, start by looking for little ways to take action and adapt.

By Litsa Williams, MA, LCSW-C Eleanor is a Program Director and Co-Founder of What's Your Grief? WYG provides general educational information from mental health professionals. Eleanor lives in Maryland and received a Master's in Social Work.

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