“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)
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.
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.
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.