Secondary Loss Explained: Definition & Examples

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The death of someone you love often results in other losses that are rarely seen or felt until much later in the grieving process. It may be difficult at first to recognize the voids your loved one left behind.

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You’re often deeply enveloped in grief and sorrow and may fail to recognize that there will be many more changes to come as you learn to maneuver your new existence without your loved one. 

These secondary losses vary and are often overlooked right when you initially grieve the initial loss. Here’s what you may need to know.

What is Secondary Loss?

Secondary loss amounts to all the smaller losses that result from the death of your loved one or another traumatic event you've suffered. These secondary losses require coping and adjustment to the unanticipated changes in your life created by the primary loss. You may not immediately register these losses — they often don’t show up until much later. As a result, they slowly begin to impact your life in unexpected ways.

There will almost always be secondary losses closely related to the first, such as a loss of companionship, loss of income and financial security, loss of your travel companion, and loss of your identity as it relates to your deceased loved one. 

These losses are most often experienced when you're getting back into your normal routine. You may notice that now you're eating out alone, receiving mail in your name alone, and maintaining the house all by yourself. These smaller losses accumulate into a different type of pain as you go through the stages of grief. You begin to mourn the loss of the role you played in each other's lives.

What’s the difference between primary and secondary loss?

To be clear, a primary loss is what you suffer when someone important to you dies. A secondary loss is an accumulation of all the unexpected ways you suffer as a result of this death.

For example, after losing a spouse, you start to experience a difference in the way people respond to you when they’re trying to learn how to console someone. You're no longer someone's husband or wife — you've lost that role to death.

ยป MORE: They might be gone, but they'll never be forgotten. Explore the next steps with this post-loss checklist.

 

How Secondary Loss Works

Secondary loss works in ways that might blindside you unless you are hyper-aware and learn to anticipate them. When one major life-changing event takes place, there's a series of mini-events that take place that have a strong impact on your daily life.

They may be apparent at first, but you'll start to notice them as you ease back into your normal routine. Here are some grief stages you might go through when learning to navigate your new reality.

1. Acceptance

The first step in healing your grief is taking account of and accepting all the losses you've suffered. This includes every loss beginning with the primary loss up to the secondary losses you may now be experiencing.

Acceptance is ordinarily the last step in the stages of grief model. However, in working through loss, it becomes the first step in the healing process.

2. Loss resolution (grieving)

You must first accept that the loss is real and that the accompanying pain and suffering is a result of it. The grieving process for secondary loss is not the same as when you work through your initial grief.

Unfortunately, almost every grief therapy model ignores the seriousness of secondary losses and makes no account for them in the stages of grief. 

3. Initial shock, disbelief and denial

The initial shock is almost always followed by a strong sense of denial that your loved one is actually gone and that you’ll never see him or her again during your lifetime.

Grief Expert J. William Worden introduced the Four Tasks of Mourning in his book Grief Counseling and Grief Therapy. They include:

  • Accepting the reality of the loss
  • Experiencing the pain of the loss
  • Adjusting to a new life
  • Reinvestment in the new reality

4. Intermediate period of acute discomfort 

If you were part of a couple, many people won’t know how to act. They may be confused as to whether they should include you in their couple’s dinners or couple’s nights out. It will take some time for others to adjust. 

5. Restitution and reorganization

This final phase includes the acceptance of your loss and the reorganization of your new life without your loved one. You can put closure behind you once you’ve had adequate time and opportunity to grieve a loved one’s death.

Grief rituals related to secondary losses include inviting friends and family to celebrate the life of your loved one who has died, continuing with holiday traditions as before, and finding closure through shared grief with others who may be experiencing the same or similar setbacks in their grief journey. 

Examples of Secondary Loss

Secondary loss can manifest itself in a number of different ways. These losses are not always related to death as you will see in the examples below. 

1. Grieving the loss of your role as a mother or wife

When your spouse dies, part of your identity dies, too.

Let’s say you were the wife of a doctor or the husband of a senator. Who do you become after this prominent person dies? You’re no longer identified by your deceased spouse's titles or credentials. You may have to get used to being just plain Betty or Bernard.

This also holds true when a divorce, separation, or breakup occurs.

2. Loss of homeland and culture

Many of us don’t consider that when immigrants come to this country, they leave behind their country, family, and culture. It’s culture shock at its most extreme.

The types of secondary losses associated with loss of homeland and culture are the separation of families, losing your identity as father, brother, sister, or spouse. These are just a few examples of the losses felt when one exchanges one homeland for a new land.

Most people who suffer these types of losses most likely didn’t consider the great impact the move might make on their personal lives, self-esteem, and finances. 

3. Unemployment and retirement

Some workers don’t consider that leaving a job, getting fired, or retiring might leave them feeling a profound sense of loss not only for their jobs and income, but for their identities.

Most people define who they are by the work that they do. Once that job is no longer available to them, they may suffer anxiety and a loss of sense of self.  

Acknowledge Secondary Loss

You can begin to heal from secondary loss by acknowledging its impact on your life. The grief healing process doesn't begin until you recognize and accept those losses. There are some specific grief remedies that a skilled therapist can walk you through and plenty of books on grief that you can read. You'll need to take the first step toward action by getting the help you deserve. 

It may be a tough road ahead to adapt to the changes your primary loss has put into motion but can be successfully traversed with proper guidance.


Sources

  1. Worden, J. W. (1991). Grief Counselling and Grief Therapy: A handbook for the mental health practitioner (2nd edition). London: Springer.

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