When my mother died suddenly, I experienced the first significant death in my life. Immediately, I began to grieve deeply, but one week later, like an on/off switch, I was forced to place my grief for my mother on “hold.” After a difficult pregnancy, I delivered my first child prematurely. She was born with Down’s Syndrome and had special needs. I was feeling the loss of a healthy newborn child. When my son, Chad, died in 1993 as a result of suicide, I was devastated, shocked and in denial. However, my husband, Gary, and I soon found ourselves sidetracked by the emotional symptoms demonstrated by Chad’s fiancée, Jenny. Concerns about possessions, financial obligations, instability and “why” issues consumed our thoughts. Ten weeks later, Jenny took her life, too. Then, with our secondary losses/issues consuming less of our time, we began to grieve.
Sometimes secondary losses following the death of a significant loved one become so overwhelming and demanding they take precedence, and we are forced to put them first. Secondary losses often demand priority because they affect how we live our lives now. Our family, friends and co-workers may misinterpret our reactions as “not grieving appropriately,” but we are just preoccupied and have temporarily put our grieving aside.
What are secondary losses? A secondary loss is another “crisis” that occurs simultaneously or as a result/reaction to the death of a loved one. Most people experience one or more secondary losses during grief.
Some secondary losses are inevitable when a loved one dies. We ultimately realize that our lives have suddenly been turned upside down. Our roles have changed; we aren’t the spouse or parent any more. Our financial status may result in a job change, moving to a different home or living a different life style. Our companionship is gone. Our plan of growing old together or seeing a child grow to adulthood results in a loss of dreams.
Marge choked back tears as she described the debacle of her husband’s new business after he died suddenly. She didn’t know his computer system, nor could she interpret his paper reports. There were many outstanding bills. Their life insurance had been used for the startup of his business. She had two young children to rear. She knew she needed to get a job. Her husband’s family was demanding payback for “borrowed money,” but there was no money to return. She felt angry, frustrated and totally helpless. Betty was angry that her husband had died suddenly when she thought his health issues were being managed. She was certain he was following his physician’s instructions. She felt guilty that maybe she (they) missed something and just wanted to know what had gone wrong. She couldn’t understand why God would let her husband die.
Peggy felt lonely and abandoned. She was a single mom, and since her only daughter died at age sixteen in a car accident, she no longer had the role of being a “mom.” She missed taking her daughter to school activities and shopping and lunch trips. Peggy’s co-workers and friends seemed distant, and her doctor warned her about her rising blood pressure and diabetes symptoms that were getting out of control. On some days she thought, “What’s the use, nobody cares anyhow!” Jake’s mother died while he was still living with her. Jake ran his small computer business from her home, and he didn’t have a regular income. Now his uncle wanted to sell the house and Jake wasn’t sure how he would survive, where he would live or how he could run his computer business. He felt insecure and shaken. He had imagined that his mother would always be there for him.
These are true stories from people who have attended our grief groups (names changed to protect privacy). They were facing more than the death of their loved one; they were dealing with associated secondary losses.
Invisible Secondary Losses
In each of our story-examples, the individuals also experienced invisible secondary losses. Some losses are invisible to family, friends and professionals who can’t see our pain or understand the other issues that affect how we grieve. Invisible losses are highly emotional issues and may be personally threatening. They may include financial instability, strained family relationships, challenges to our faith, feeling of helplessness, personal health issues and lack of self-confidence and self-esteem. Our anxiety and fear about “what now?” is highly elevated. And we may not feel comfortable talking about personal matters.
After Chad’s and Jenny’s death, I continued to struggle with numerous secondary losses. The greatest of these was knowing I would never be grandmother-my loss of dreams. The young people Chad “hung around” with no longer frequented our kitchen or family room. In fact some of their parents even avoided us. The Army National Guard came to pick up Chad’s military equipment – a source of joy and pride for Chad – and I felt like they were “taking away” a part of him. I felt embarrassed to face the families in our church since Chad died as a result of suicide – considered taboo. I had just accepted a new job, and since my concentration was lacking, I feared I would fail. In the early months of grief, I was overwhelmed with secondary losses!
No one can dictate how you should grieve. No one can take away the reality of your secondary losses. There is no right or wrong way to manage secondary losses, nor is there any formula for making them disappear. They are a part of “griefwork.” I learned quickly that I couldn’t deal with every feeling and emotion at one time. To save my sanity and my dignity, I tried to prioritize what I could control and what I could handle on any given day.
How to Put Secondary Losses First and Manage Them
• Accept that most deaths trigger secondary or associated losses. Accept that dealing with secondary losses is just as important as grieving the death of your loved one. Eventually, each will demand attention in your life and require resolution through grief work.
• Give yourself permission to put your grief “on hold” while you deal with immediate emotional feelings and life-changing plans. Secondary losses may slow down the healing of your grief, but they don’t have to bring it to a standstill.
• Identify issues or concerns that have an immediate effect on your life situation. What will change now that your loved one has died? What decisions need to be made within the next thirty to sixty days?
• Brainstorm options and alternatives to your problems even if they may be short-term. Making major decisions in early grief can prove unwise later. Find a good listener who can help you talk through your concerns without offering unwanted advice or making judgmental statements.
• Build a support system of trusted friends in whom you can confide. This may include clergy, a financial or legal advisor or a trusted friend or family member. If you feel you need help sorting through your emotional problems, you may want to consult a professional grief counselor.
• Handle one issue at a time based on priority. It may require explaining your situation to creditors, talking to family, taking a “leave” from work and changing your long-term plans.
• Participate in safe grieving practices while you work through your secondary losses. Take some time to honor the life and death of your loved one. Visit the cemetery. Create positive memories and harvest a positive attitude. Join a support group and mingle with others in similar situations. Taking time to honor and remember-even on a limited basis-will minimize the guilt you may have for putting your secondary losses first.
I saw Peggy about eighteen months after her daughter’s death. She looked cheerful and the color bloomed in her cheeks. She had taken a new job, met another single woman, with no children, who also belonged to her gym and who liked to go to the theatre and travel. Jake is still living in his mother’s house. His uncle helped him find a way to stay in the house, if only temporarily, until the estate was settled.
Marge asked her brother-in-law to help her sort through her husband’s business account and compile information that she could take to an accountant. She sold inventory to pay for some of the business debts. She found a job that is personally rewarding and provides some structure to her shattered life. Betty made an appointment with her husband’s physician to discuss his medical history and outcomes. At the time of this writing, she is still dealing with her resentment about a missed diagnosis. She wants an apology and feels that will help her move forward.
Some secondary losses will be resolved naturally over time; others will stick with you throughout your grief journey and become an integral part of your grief work. Secondary losses impact our quality of life and deserve our attention. When this happens, put secondary losses first. Don’t rely on others to solve your problems for you. You are coming to terms with how your life has changed. You are finding ways to cope without your loved one. Delayed grief can be revisited and honored at any time. Allow your feelings to stabilize and then take time to grieve.
Managing secondary losses first can prove to be a time of growth, new beginnings, exploration, and discovery.