Why secondary losses are a ‘’double whammy’’ for grievers

Why secondary losses are a double whammy for grievers

The term ”secondary losses” has a habit of sounding dismissive – particularly for grievers who believe these losses to be anything but easy!

”Secondary loss” refers to the losses resulting from a death (direct loss). These are usually non-death losses like losses related to financial security, sense of self, a sense of purpose, and support systems.

Essentially, secondary losses are in no way less strenuous or less traumatizing than primary losses. Unfortunately, however, as many grievers will attest, secondary losses are often overlooked at best and utterly unacknowledged at worst.

What are secondary losses?

The death of a loved one is a life-altering experience.

Multiple losses

Ultimately, forever losing someone we thought would always be around, whether that person is a sibling, parent, child, or partner, often throws our lives off course, disrupting any plans and goals.

Losing a loved one frequently catapults people into existential crisis since the feelings and emotions associated with grief, among many things, often change an individual’s identity, perception, and sense of self.

The result of the death

Loss of a loved one

For many grievers, this ‘loss of self’ allows them to view the world and those around them through an entirely different lens, usually a traumatic one.

Regardless of the circumstances and who might have passed away, grief is a leveler. It changes the emotional baseline of a person, sometimes forever. 

All this is where the secondary losses come into play.

Grieving process

Within the mental health field, the losses that get called secondary are a normal part of grief – they may unfold over time or manifest immediately in the aftermath of a death.

Identifying and acknowledging secondary losses can often be the first step to grieving them, but what are they?

Many losses

Essentially, after the death of a loved one – bereaved individuals may find that the remaining people in their lives have become difficult to identify with and connect to, and this can be disconcerting. 

They may even feel that the people around them have changed or treat them differently from how they did before.

Often, all this can result in the death of the remaining relationships left in a grievers’ life.

There are also the financial implications of dealing with death to consider. For example, the loss of a parent might result in the family house getting sold or paying off any debt that a deceased loved one may have accrued.

Support systems

By and large, many grievers will experience multiple losses post-bereavement while dealing with the ramifications of a loved ones’ death. 

These secondary losses include:

  • Friendships (this may involve losing numerous friends or a best friend who no longer identifies with or understands you post-bereavement)
  • Home (many people move house after experiencing a loss, which can create different feelings of grief, such as loss of familiarity, memories, etc.)
  • Identity
  • Traditions
  • Privacy (grievers may have to move in with other family members due to debt or other financial circumstances)
  • Relationships (many grievers report losing significant relationships post-bereavement, such as cutting ties with their brother, mom, wife, children, husband or another critical relationship)
  • Loss of a support system

Grief process

Secondary losses add another dimension to grief, whether it’s our best friends that we lose in the wake of a death or another person who has (fortunately) not died.

Essentially, the pain of a secondary loss is not to get sniffed at, and many people require support in understanding the complex process of secondary loss.

How to move forward

Many grief specialists speak about secondary losses as a way for grievers to grow; since we often use the people in our lives as crutches, we get to choose whether we sink or swim when this support system gets taken away.

Understanding our loss of support

Being consciously aware of secondary losses allows grievers the opportunity to identify them – it may not make the grieving process of secondary loss any less painful, but it does make it less confusing.

Broadly, putting a name to something allows us to look at it from a different vantage point. 

By doing this, we may end up feeling less alone. We may even find it easier to open up and talk to the remaining people in our lives about our losses.

Many grief recovery programs teach people to come to terms with their grief by adopting strategies that allow them to view their losses in a different light.

It will never be OK to lose a friend, father, mother, brother, or another family member, but having the right support group can be the difference between moving forward or staying stuck in our grief.

Grieving the loss

The most basic recovery strategy is allowing ourselves the space to grieve our losses.

All this sounds simple enough, yet so many grievers feel an incredible amount of pressure to be ” over it” months later or to put on a brave face after someone they love has passed away.

One loss after another

In many cases, grievers often end up feeling like burdens in the wake of grief since, primarily, society is ill-prepared to support grievers.

As a result, many people smile, drink or ”good vibes” their way through the bereavement process, believing that their ”silence” will make the remaining people in their lives stick around.

However, all this is not sustainable in the long-term, and eventually, the cracks begin to show, inevitably resulting in difficult conversations, and as is often the case, additional losses.

Sorry for your loss

Essentially, people will assume that a griever only has to deal with one loss, which is the primary loss. 

Yet, surprisingly, plenty of prevailing grief theories have also failed to recognize the unyielding impact of secondary losses.

Stroebe and Schutt, 1999 explained the impact of secondary loss as ”a lack of recognition of the range of stressors, the diversity of losses, integral to the bereavement experience. Not only is there the loss of the person, but adjustments have to get made concerning many aspects of life.” 

Grief types

Research suggests that secondary losses are related to ”other types of loss” including:

Disenfranchised grief

Bereavement specialist Ken Doka coined the term ”disenfranchised grief” describing it as:

”Grief that person’s experience when they incur a loss that is not or cannot be openly acknowledged, socially sanctioned or publicly mourned.”

When a loss gets considered disenfranchised, it means that the person isn’t getting the validation or support they need.

Unfortunately, non-death losses often go unacknowledged and unsupported. 

This often results in people viewing their losses as obstacles to overcome rather than things that need to be grieved.

Ambiguous loss

Ambiguous loss is a similar bereavement process to disenfranchised grief; when something is ambiguous, a person is uncertain about what (or who) was lost or whether a loss has occurred at all.

This type of grief usually occurs in scenarios where

1) a loved one has a terminal health condition (like dementia),

2) a person is physically present. Still, a significant aspect of their identity has changed, or

3) when a person is physically absent but possibly still alive.

In both these instances, there has been a dramatic change that induces feelings of loss.

However, a person might feel confused and conflicted about whether or not they should grieve these losses since the person they love is still alive, and there is often a sense of hope that things will eventually return to normal.


Recovering from grief

The words ”recovery” and ”loss” often feel incompatible, particularly in early grief. Is it possible to ever get over losing a son, a dad, our parents? Probably not.

However, there is often a way for people to get unstuck from the clutches of raw, unrelenting grief usually present every day in the early weeks, months (sometimes years) following a significant loss.

The road to recovery involves many aspects, one of them being the acceptance that life will be different without the presence of the people that once filled it. There will always be a void in many ways, one that can eventually get filled again in the future, but with something entirely different.

Contact us

If you or a loved one are struggling to come to terms with a bereavement, get in touch with a member of the team today who will be able to help.

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