Secondary Losses: Why Grief is So Hard & Lasts So Long

I find that most grievers are surprised by their grief. By the depth of it, the longevity of it, and the inflexibility of it.

On the one hand it seems obvious why we suffer so intensely after someone we love has died. The absence of someone who played such a significant role in our lives is going to leave a void that no one and nothing can fill. As time passes and we expect to be feeling better, we instead face a daily assault of reminders that can trigger harsh and violent waves of grief that may sometimes be just too much to bear.

But why? Why, when we feel we’re working so hard, and getting the support, and being patient and taking the time to grieve – why do we still face this daily hurt that cuts so deep, and why does it continue to happen even as the months and years pass by?

In the groups I’ve facilitated we talk about the idea of secondary losses. If you’re not familiar, the “primary loss” would be the loss of the loved one who has died. The “secondary loss”…well, that’s just about everything else.

Because when we lose someone we love we don’t just lose them (and that alone would be significant, of course) but we lose every single part of our lives that was tied and associated to them.

Some examples of potential secondary losses are:

  1. loss of partner/planner/advice giver/sympathetic ear A lot of times the person we mourn was our “go-to” person. The person we called or texted with good news, bad news, or everyday run-of-the-mill-news. Grievers often tell me that months and even years after the loss of a loved one they will find themselves instinctually picking up the phone to call a person who is no longer here. The realization that follows often leads to feeling “crazy”, along with an intense sadness and longing. Do these little things that happen in our day to day lives continue to matter if we have no one to share them with?
  2. loss of shared household chores and duties In marriage and partnerships we sort of assign and take on different tasks around the house. Sometimes it’s a discussion but most of the time it’s an unspoken agreement of splitting up the work that needs to be done. So when we lose a partner, and we find ourselves doing a task around the house that was “his” or “hers” we may feel completely gutted. I’ve heard stories of grievers having a total breakdown while mowing the lawn for the first time. Is it because mowing the lawn is truly that hard, or is it because the only reason why they’re out there mowing is because the person who is “supposed” to be doing it is no longer there? When faced with a task originally handled by the deceased the griever is going to find that they are not only challenged at having to learn something they probably never wanted to learn, but the heartbreaking reminder of why they’re needing to learn it in the first place.
  3. loss of income No one wants to think about money at times like these, but the sad fact is that life goes on and bills need to be paid. If we shared expenses with the person who is gone, we have the added stress of figuring out how to manage finances now that they’re no longer here. Some who shared a home with a parent as they cared for them may find they are no longer able to afford to stay after their parent is gone. This can add a tremendous amount of stress and anguish to an already difficult time, and make the griever wonder what their future is going to look like without their loved one there to contribute or help take care of them.
  4. loss of connection to other family and friends Plain and simple, the people in our lives create links to other people in our life. Our spouse and partners connect us to in-laws. Our parents are often the center of our siblings, cousins, and extended family. Our friends can be what keeps us tied to other friends. Our spouse can be the one who makes us feel comfortable out in a group or socializing with other couples. Without our loved one here to maintain the connection, we may feel some of our relationships starting to slip away. This can be just one more of the many reasons that people feel more isolated after their loved one is gone.
  5. loss of physical and emotional intimacy Intimacy is going to have a lot of different meanings in this case, and mostly it will depend on the relationship and who has died. Loss of intimacy can be a loss of physical and sexual intimacy of course, but it can also mean losing the person we get a hug from or hold hands with. Different than the loss mentioned in #1 – this may be the person we shared things with that we would never tell anyone else. Losing this person may mean losing the only person we ever felt really knew us or accepted us the way we are.
  6. loss of future/plans This may be the one that best explains why the grief is still with us even long after a person is gone. When thinking about our future we always expect our loved one to be a part of it. And every day and every occasion and every wedding and holiday and baby being born that passes is a reminder of what our loved one is supposed to be here for, and isn’t. It explains why even happy and joyous occasions continue to be filled with an equal amount of sadness and despair.

So what do we do with this information? Many grievers I talk to suffer not just from their loss but the real concern that something is wrong with their way of coping. This list serves to provide a validation of the significance of the loss. It’s a way of saying, “Of course you’re having a hard time!” because every single part of your life has been effected.

If you find yourself breaking down in the middle of doing the cooking, because that’s not something you ever had to do… or balancing the checkbook because that was never your chore…if you find a “happy” life event is not filled with the sheer joy you would have expected it to be…

It’s okay, and it’s normal.

You are grieving an extraordinary loss, and every trigger and every reminder is just a testament to the fact that you truly shared your life, yourself, your love and your heart with someone else. While these times and these triggers are painful, let them always remind you of a great love you have shared.

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About the Author
My name is Karyn Arnold and I am the founder of Grief in Common, Grief in Common is a website designed to connect and match those who are grieving based on background and similar experiences of loss, for online chats and opportunities to meet in person. I have been working in the field of grief and loss for over 15 years, facilitating bereavement groups, providing support one on one, and educating the community about the grief process. I love this work. I love the resilience of human spirit I see in this work and I have always felt honored and grateful to provide an outlet for a person to grieve.Unfortunately, loss is an inevitable part of life. And while it takes time and it’s never simple, I truly believe that within each of us is the strength and courage to heal, to live and to move forward, in ways that we may never have thought possible. So take the first step in figuring out what's next and where to go from here...go to today and connect with those who will understand.
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