Secondary Loss Explained: Definition & Examples


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.

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. 

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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.  

How to Cope With Secondary Loss

Everyone deals with loss in their own way. How one person deals with the accompanying sadness and profound sense of grief from their loss can ultimately be quite different from the next, even when facing the same or similar tragic outcomes. Getting through the compound losses that result from a significant traumatic event will take patience, self-realization, and understanding.

Coming to terms with your losses is possible, although it may take time to make sense of it all. The following are some tips to help you cope even when you feel that there’s no hope left in a situation. 

Give yourself time

Allowing yourself significant time to heal is an essential factor in coping with secondary loss. Losses that compound one on top of another make healing more challenging. You’ll need time to process every loss on its own before realizing complete healing from your grief. Things you can do during this time include:

  • Exploring the events leading up to each loss
  • Thinking through how each event added to your sense of loss
  • Realizing the impact of each on your present life
  • Rationalizing your feelings and emotions regarding each
  • Coming up with ways in which you can move past your pain

Build a strong support system

For individuals who've suffered losses involving the loss of identity, homeland, and culture, it can help you to ease some feelings of loss by rebuilding what you've lost. Creating robust support systems within your community can help to ease some of the feelings of loss and the accompanying sadness of leaving your home behind.

Although these new connections won't replace what you once had, they'll help you feel a sense of security in your new surroundings. Having someone to call on for help when needed is like adding a layer of protection to your wounded soul. Support communities become an extension of your friends and family after some time. 

Go out there and find yourself

Losing your identity as it relates to your spouse or another significant role within a family can be heart-wrenching. You’ll likely feel lost and without any direction or motivation to go on for quite some time. After the initial stages of grief have come and gone, try to get yourself out there and forge a new sense of identity for yourself.

Start small and build yourself into the person you see yourself as becoming. This is the time to let your dreams shine through. Maybe this is the time to go back to school, change careers, or realize your wildest fantasies on how you have always wanted to live your life. 

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Seize new opportunities

Many people lose their jobs and careers throughout their lifetimes. They’ll have to suffer those losses and start all over again. When you suffer through the loss of a job or other defining role in your life, it can feel depressing and sometimes even humiliating, depending on the circumstances.

Give yourself time to mourn your loss, then figure out where you want to go next. At the time, losing your job or career may seem like the most devastating thing ever. However, when you see things from a different perspective, this can be one of the most extraordinary things to ever happen in your life. 

How to Help a Loved One Cope With Secondary Loss

Individuals suffering through loss and heartbreak may not always be receptive to receiving help from others. Men and women tend to suffer through their losses in competing ways. Where one person may want the added attention of friends and families as they mourn, others may want to be left alone with their grief. 

Even when you have the best intentions in reaching out to a grieving loved one, things may backfire, leaving you feeling unappreciated. Understand the effect of compounded grief on your loved ones and try not to take rejection personally. Here are some ways to reach out to a loved one coping with secondary losses. 

Lend your support

Regardless of your loved one's grieving style, always let them know that you are there for them regardless of whether they're ready to open up about their pain and suffering. Women tend to grieve in ways that welcome the added attention from friends and family. In contrast, men typically withdraw from others when sorting through their grief.

You can support your loved one who's coping with loss in ways that fit their grieving style. Take some cues from their behavior and mirror your input based on their behavior. Let them know that you're there for them by showing up and being present. 

Acknowledge their suffering

Grief has the potential to make some people feel as if they're a burden on their loved ones. Individuals who are having a tough time coping with their loss might feel like crying all the time or may feel such profound despair that they lose all hope in life.

When friends and families fail to acknowledge their grief, they tend to withdraw even more into themselves. An excellent way to let your loved ones know that you understand their pain is by expressing concern over their wellbeing, listening to them, and refraining from making comparisons to things you've suffered in the past. 

Help them in creating a legacy

Secondary losses significantly impact our lives. You can help your loved ones cope in healthy ways by encouraging them to preserve their loved one's memory in ways that honor them and capture the essence of who they were.

Consider offering copies of old photographs of their loved one, sharing your favorite memories of them, and telling how their life impacted yours. You can combine these memories and old photos into a scrapbook that captures their loved one's legacy. You can memorialize their loved one's impact on several lives by turning this into an activity for others to join in.  

Encourage self-care

Help your grieving loved one take care of themselves and look after their overall well-being as they suffer through their loss. Health, exercise, nutrition, and getting adequate sleep and rest all impact health and healing. Daily check-ins by phone or text help your loved one stay on track with remembering to eat or take needed breaks.

Consider cooking and delivering a few meals, so they have healthy food that’s ready to heat and eat at their disposal. Whenever possible, take your loved one out for lunch or a cup of coffee to get them out of the house and feel less lonely. 

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.

  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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