Let’s talk secondary losses.
Often in the wake of great loss and the overwhelming grief that follows, we experience waves of “secondary” losses.
I use the term secondary, because often these subsequent losses pale in comparison to the first loss that served as a catalyst, but are nonetheless still losses that must be grieved, and they add to the emotional turmoil and mental strain a mourner is already struggling through.
For example, in the aftermath of Caleb’s death, the strain of intense grief wrecked havoc on a few of my close friendships that had previously been safe harbors for me. In the chaotic storm of loss, I ran to find solace in those friendships, only to find more turbulence. Ultimately I lost one close friend of mine and Caleb’s permanently, leading to more grief, disappointment, a sense of betrayal, and now even a little bit more of the life I had previously shared with Caleb slipping out of my grasp. If given a chance to choose, I would hands down rather have lost a hundred friendships to betrayal than lose Caleb to death, but one loss seeming less than the other does not take away from it truly being a loss. Losing that friendship was infuriating and unfair and it pushed me to my brink during a time where I felt I had nothing more to give.
With my pre-existing PTSD diagnosis, the grief took an even bigger toll on my body and mind to where I could not maintain the delicately balanced mental and physical health I had struggled for years to obtain. I was tossed years backward into mental discombobulation, with a brain that was now changed and unfamiliar; the way forward was different than before and had to be learned again from ground zero. I had to grieve the loss of my hard-earned mental clarity and resulting physical health all over again, in ways I never expected to. And while I would rather have Caleb than all the health in the world, this was still an extremely challenging loss to grapple with.
The secondary losses didn’t end with me, but rippled through my community, disrupting the stability of most in my life. Someone very close to Caleb and me lost her marriage in the midst of grieving his death, as the weight of the grief cracked the already rickety support beams of her relationship. This person shared that she believed her marriage would have ended at some point anyway and the predictable loss of her marriage was far less traumatic than losing Caleb, but it was one more building block of her crumbling life thrown into disarray at a time where she felt vulnerable and at her limit.
Difficult decisions associated with a death at times put stress on extended family relationships, leading to arguments, unease and feelings of isolation.
Secondary losses are common, if not unavoidable after severe loss and grief, and being aware of that can help us know that we are not crazy, or weak or unable to “handle things well”.
When supporting a grieving loved one, being aware that their visible struggles might only be the tip of the iceberg can help us grow in empathy and patience.