Secondary Losses: Lifestyle & Surroundings

“When someone you love dies, and you’re not expecting it, you don’t lose her all at once; you lose her in pieces over a long time — the way the mail stops coming, and her scent fades from the pillows and even from the clothes in her closet and drawers. Gradually, you accumulate the parts of her that are gone. Just when the day comes — when there’s a particular missing part that overwhelms you with the feeling that she’s gone, forever — there comes another day, and another specifically missing part.”– John Irving, A Prayer for Owen Meany

Any primary loss produces secondary losses, which are like the aftershocks of an earthquake. The big event, the earth splitting tragedy, causes destruction to the main frame of things. This is what those of us who have not experienced earthquakes generally hear about and pay attention to. Grief and sympathy are often expected if not understood for this type of disaster. The aftershocks of them are also terribly devastating, but aftershocks are not often recognized.

Likewise, when a person dies he or she is publicly mourned, but the secondary losses to those left behind often go unheeded by the bereaved and also by people around them. Unless those of us who are grieving recognize and explain these aftershocks or secondary losses to people on the periphery of our grief, it is likely that they will never know about the pain of them. How can we hope for support if our supporters don’t even know about our struggle? That is what I am aiming to do with this series about secondary losses. It is my guess that if you’re reading this that you have experienced deep loss on some level. We all do. It is my hope that you will be able to recognize your own secondary losses, grieve them, and find the words to describe them to others who want to care for you.

Secondary Losses Series

Secondary Losses: Introduction (already posted)
Secondary Losses: Lifestyle & Surroundings (you are here!)
Secondary Losses: Roles & Relationships (coming soon)
Secondary Losses: Hopes & Dreams (coming soon)
Secondary Losses: Identity & Identifiers (coming soon)

My story

At the time of my husband’s death, he had been a youth pastor and the sole money-maker for our family. We didn’t have very much in our bank account, but it was enough for me to stay home with our children. When he died, that source of income was gone too. Furthermore, Eric had not been able to get affordable life insurance because of a preexisting heart condition, so when he died there was no money for me and my children to live on. I quickly realized that in order to provide for my children financially, I would need to find a new lifestyle. By the grace of God, I did not actually feel an ache in my bank account for a little while because I was so surrounded by generous and loving people. Yet, tangible provision did not cancel out the losses. I knew that the gifts would stop coming, and was daunted by the inevitability that I would soon need to take on a new job. The ache that was not immediately felt in my bank account was felt in my heart. With each monetary gift came the reminder that Eric was no longer with me.

Certainly I lost my primary financial provider, but I lost also the ability to stay home with my children – something I valued and enjoyed. For quite a while I lost the closeness I was able to share with them during any part of the day because my mind was occupied with paperwork and a new job on top of overwhelming grief. I had been breastfeeding William, but my milk supply diminished extensively and then completely with the grief – routine, role, and relationship losses. Finally, after less than two months, we moved away from our home in Wisconsin, leaving familiar spaces, friends and our church behind. Soon I sold the car Eric and I had shared and I gave away things that he no longer needed. I took off my wedding ring when I felt that it no longer tied me to Eric but rather to a statement about myself that was no longer true… two years later the spot where it sat still feels strangely empty. These secondary losses were daily reminders that Eric was really and fully gone from our lives.

Changes in lifestyle and surroundings

Many people’s lives change substantially after the loss of their loved one. A parent who loses a child no longer needs to keep track of that child’s belongings. A businessman whose financial partner dies may not be able to hold onto their shop. A bereaved dog owner might no longer need to take a lunch break so her pup can go outside. These secondary losses reach beyond the one who died, into the life of their survivors, for much longer than the primary loss is generally remembered by others. The first things to become apparent, are lifestyle changes and daily reality reminders. Things like location, occupation, social interactions, and even shopping preferences. Not all of these changes are negative, but they don’t negate the loss or sadness one might feel when the previous things are gone.

Secondary gains

The positives about what can come after tragedy are the silver linings on the clouds of loss. In my own situation, though I lost my lifestyle as a married, stay-at-home-mom, I gained a part-time position as a Communications Director – directly using my university degree. I was afraid that time with my children would be lost, but I’m still able to spend intentional, quality time with them. I lost the community I had in Wisconsin (though facebook is awesome!), but I have gained a full community here in Minnesota where my family is thriving. I’ve gained friends who I might not have had in my previous situation, including other single moms who ran in different circles than I once had. I lost my family’s space, but I now live in a multi-generational home with my parents and my grandmother. Yes, there are four generations living under one roof! My grandma is only here temporarily, as she is recovering from knee surgery, yet all the same, we are experiencing benefits of daily interactions with special people that we likely never would have had prior to loss.

After Eric died, I also lost the items that once connected me to him, but I have gained and purchased items that are mine (like my new-ish car) that make me happy because I know that I chose them according to my own preferences and financial decisions. My “new normal” is not necessarily better or worse than it was before loss. It is helpful for me, however, to acknowledge the hard and move forward in the positives of the present.

Grief Work

I’ve often said that grief is like hunting for a bear as in the children’s book by Michael Rosen. “Can’t go over it, can’t go under it, gotta go through it.” It takes a lot of effort to move through and learn from grief. It’s a beast, and it’s tough, but I’ve been finding that there is healing as you work through it. Here are some prompts that may help you on your journey.

  • Are there things you lost or changes that you made as a result of your primary loss? Have you taken time to recognize and grieve them?
  • Is there anyone in your life that should know that you’re struggling with the pain of those secondary losses?
  • Are there any positive things that have become realities after or even as a result of the primary loss?
  • While focussing solely on the gains may hinder your ability to grieve the losses appropriately, positivity will help you move forward toward healing. Try making a list of the things that you could count as secondary gains or positive realities for you and your family.

Secondary Losses: Introduction

Secondary Losses from Grief

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. People categorize them differently, but the way I have experienced them is this:

Types of Secondary Loss

  1. Secondary Losses: Lifestyle & Surroundings
  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 my blog get e-mail notifications, or check back for a link next week.)

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.

Photo byveeterzy on Unsplash

Grief: There Are No Rules

His lower lip plumps outward as he stares intently at the lego pieces. My almost-three-year-old is focusing all of his might to get the red piece to stick onto the black one. The instructions are clear, this is the next step. His tongue comes through his lips as he squints his eyes. His father used to do this too and I’ve been told it’s an helpful concentration exercise. It must be worthwhile, because he accomplishes his goal! He holds the new structure up high with the grandest, toothiest smile I’ve ever seen. But before I can fully congratulate him, the legos fall out of his hand and land on the table, where they fall to pieces. The celebratory face of my son instantly changes to one of profound sadness and tears well up like a flash-flood on his cheeks. No matter what I say next, no matter what happens with the pieces after the building breaks, my son has just experienced grief.

All of us, inevitably, will face some type of grief in our lives. Most of us will encounter multiple types of it, from broken things or relationships to loss, death, and crushed dreams. Humans have this experience in common. However, just as every individual is unique, so is each person’s grieving process – and even one person’s process may not be the same after each loss. Like a storm, grief can feel unpredictable and scary – or simply irritating and inconvenient like an open wound. I often find myself frustrated that I can’t get grief to operate on my schedule. I don’t grieve in the same way that others do, and my grief does not behave alike either! There is no rule book for grief because it simply would not follow one, and because it makes little sense to try to fit unique people into a one-size-fits-all scheme of amoral should’s and should not’s. Here are some things I’ve been learning in my own grief and while grieving with others.

Grief has no hierarchy

Just months after the death of my husband, a well-meaning friend told me that I should be thankful that I’d lost a spouse instead of a child. “It would be hard to see your peer die, but if your child died that would be much more painful. Losing a child would be much worse than what you went through.” Ouch. I am certainly grateful to never have experienced the unimaginable pain and anguish that would inevitably come with the death of a child. Truthfully, I could never know whether it would “hurt” more to watch my children’s father die than it would to watch with him as my child dies…but I suspect that neither is better or worse. Other losses I have experienced give me insight to say that suffering does not hang out on a scale. Summary: One person’s grief is not comparable to another’s in any way that could make one loss greater or harder or make any other person’s loss less valid.

It is not measurable

Have you ever tried to measure water with a colander? Attempting to calculate grief is like that. Every person is unique, so every relationship with every person or idea or plan is different. The complexities of each situation surrounding the loss are different, and the personal value ascribed to each lost thing is different. And if that wasn’t enough to screw up any potential measurement system, grief doesn’t even stay the same from one moment to the next. Summary: There is no equation that could factor in all of the variables of the unique grief process for each individual.

There is no timeline

Grief has been explained as five sequential stages…denial, bargaining, anger, depression, and acceptance. But, in my experiences of grief, I’ve found it to be much less linear than that. It goes up and down and all around then back and forth and sideways in the strangest of ways. At times, a person can be in two or three or all of the stages at once, or at least move so quickly through them that transitions disappear. In a timeline, there is a beginning and an end. But grief, especially for someone or something we already know is going to leave us, does not have a beginning. And grief, though it changes, does not have an end. It’s been two years since my husband died, and not a single day goes by that I don’t think about him. My grandfather passed away over four years ago, but I still tear up when I see his picture. A beloved dog was killed twenty-four years ago, but I still miss her. Summary: There is no time when you should be “over it.”

Everyone grieves differently

Since the loss of my husband, I’ve chosen specific days to lean into the pain as far as possible. On those days I focus on feelings of sadness or anger. I spend time writing, revisiting places with memories, listening to sad music, and crying. Generally I grieve privately, but I also process it publicly. On days of wallowing and all the days in between, I’ve drawn strength from prayer and God’s word. I have friends and family who don’t like to sit and wallow, but prefer to allocate all of their time to focusing on the silver linings and the beauty that comes from ashes. Some of my friends like to keep themselves busy, and rarely express their grief. Your particular method for dealing with grief may not be perfect for me, just as mine may not work at all for you. Have grace with yourself as you learn what works best for you. Summary: Each grief process is as unique as the person grieving.

There are no rules for how to deal with your own grief. It is much like what the children learned in Michael Rossen’s Going on A Bear Hunt, “can’t go over it; can’t go under it… gotta go through it.” Wherever you are on the road through loss, grief, and healing, I hope that you’ll give yourself grace and take comfort that there is no wrong way to travel this path.

The majority of this content was first published on Bridging The Gap.

Grief Rules: Grief is unique to each personGrief Rules: There is no timelineGrief Rules: It is not measurableGriefRulesHierarchyGrief Rules: There are no rules

Featured Image unsplash-logoCaleb Woods