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

secondary lossesI 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.




54 thoughts on “Secondary Losses: Why Grief is So Hard & Lasts So Long”

  1. Well all I can say is .. This brought the tears!
    You described my life.. All of it..
    It has been a year and a half since I lost my best friend, my husband, my heart. It seems to be more difficult this year for all the reasons you named.. It is as they say,
    “The harsh reality”.
    Thank you for writing your article, I guess we share the same emotions…

    1. The first week that my husband died a very dear friend of his said “you just have to be strong”. Really?? I told him I wasn’t strong and cried until the conversation was done. He has since changed his tack. And I ‘m still not strong. I just think I’m getting more “used” to my hubby’s absence. I guess.

  2. Yes!!!!! I want to copy this and send it to every person that says to mean “it’ll get easier….you just need some time”
    Time isn’t going to bring him back so that will never be the answer!
    He got to be with our first and only granddaughter for 18 mos & now every time I’m with her all I can think about is he should be here with me to be grandPARENTS.
    Oh here come the tears?

  3. Thank you for this article . In the United States it seems we need to give ourselves permission to grieve . Unfortunately , people tend to avoid the Grief topic and surpress their true feelings . I dont expect people to understand unless they have “ Walked in MY Moccocins “ At times I am glad they don’t understand because that means they havent had to experience the pain and loss of a loved one . Be KIND to yourself , love , live and be GRATEFUL for having that person in your LIFE .

    1. I just thought about that this. TGiving, my late husbands birthday and Christmas is coming up. We pretty much just enjoyed celebrating quietly, alone. It’s just the way we were. I’m sure some friends will think it’s a responsibility to invite me over. I won’t feel like it. But I will probably feel obligated to go to one of the invites or maybe they’ll never ask again. I’m sure I’ll just want to cuddle with my dogs and cry under the covers. I don’t think I’ll have the strength to go and enjoy.

  4. Incredibly accurate and well written.
    I lost my mother and two younger sisters when I was 13 – they were killed in a plane crash. I am 60 now, and I still miss them, especially at celebrations and significant events.
    I may have only had them in my life during my childhood, but they have stayed in my heart and soul, and on my mind, for over 40 years.

  5. What a terrific article, and so enlightening about the depth of the struggle to go through the grief process when it involves the loss of a partner or spouse. It’s actually sooo many losses!

  6. So well articulated and accurate reflections of what happens when the reality of losing the most significant person in one’s life happens.

  7. I could never figure out how to put words to what you call secondary loss. Thank you. That’s spot on.

  8. My partner was very mentally ill before she died, I was going through this process months before her actual departure, as I felt like she’d already left the relationship. When she died, I was initially relieved and at peace, now I feel numb because I have no stress, no friction, my life is calm, no treading on eggshells, no money worries. The house runs smoothly, I realised after her death that all I miss is holidays, when we always had a lovely time without minor stresses. I feel I grieved her and went through this process prematurely, am I weird??

  9. This article is so true. I am over 5 years into widowhood and I amazed at how strong the grief is at times. The support from family and friends only lasts so long and then you are truly alone.

  10. My husband died May 2016. Thought I would be okay by now. NOT!! Was doing pretty good, but for some reason, this past week was a crying jag week. After reading this, a lot of light had been shed to help me understand. I did attend a grief sharing class back then, but your words of wisdom really hit the nail on the head. Thank you for this article. ?

  11. I lost my beloved husband 7 years ago. I have felt like I have been a bad example on how to grieve because I have not coped well in my mind. I don’t want to do the things I did with him and I know I have not helped my kids and grandkids with their grieving. Reading this helps me understand why I still cry and mourn for the future we had dreamed about together. I also find it hard to feel happy for long because I know it will end in grief. I guess this is my new normal and it is not how I wanted it, but some things are out of our control and we just hang on for the ride. Nowadays I am grateful for small moments of love and joy.

  12. I agree with J P D. Family and friends help to a certain extent, but I still feel very alone. My partner passed away suddenly, 10 months ago and I am still reeling from the shock and the enormous secondary losses. I am doing yoga, as much as possible when I can motivate myself, I keep a journal, I go to a Support Centre, I can call a volunteer grief worker… I feel I am doing a lot to help myself, but the bottom line is that this is very, very difficult and I must just accept that this happened and things will never be the same, that my whole life has changed. I must hope that time will help me get used to this new reality.

  13. I lost two of my nuclear family members last year, my father and my brother who was my only sibling. My mother is still here, thankfully. My dilemma is that I have not felt the grief for these losses that I think I should have felt. I feel guilty for not grieving. My father was 91 and lived a good life until the end when his health failed quickly.My brother was a life-long substance abuser and had a sad, horrible life. Is it wrong to feel that they are better off, or am I making excuses for not grieving these losses?

    1. Hi Pamela, what a good question you pose, and not an easy one to ask, I know. I think one of the most important things to remember in grieving is that there is no right or wrong way to do it. We have expectations of how we should act, and these are often influenced by the expectations of others as well. But grief is very instinctual and the emotions that naturally rise to the surface are what’s “right” for us. In many ways you may have already experienced some grief related to both losses. As our parents age, we begin to lose them slowly as we see them change from the parents and people they once were. And those who have watched a loved one suffer from substance abuse suffer many losses with them along the way as well. In the end, I’d say it’s always best to stay open to the emotions that arise, knowing that certain unexpected triggers may still cause the grief to come, but don’t judge yourself or your grief if this is what is coming naturally. Most importantly know that the magnitude of our grief does not have to match the depth of our love and demonstrating grief in this way doesn’t mean you loved these two any less. Thanks for bringing your story to us, and please take care~

  14. She WAS the only one who understood me. She was my best friend for 30 years and cancer took her in 3 months. She passed away 7 years ago. I miss her so much every day. I know it will never end.

  15. Bingo! My husband died 23 years ago and 7 years later I met a wonderful widower. Up until four weeks ago our life was splendid. Then a cruel disease took him. I have trouble walking thru the vegetables and fruits at the super market because he loved them so much. I feel hollow. On the other hand, I am fortunate to have had two outstanding men in my life. But the eyes are full and sometimes, for no reason, they spill over

  16. Loss doesn’t always come from death. Divorce. Illness. Same grief, but often complicated because of the other factors.

  17. It’s 7+ years since my husband of 30 years died. We were perfect with each other and had businesses together so we were together almost of those years 24/7. He was the love of my life and best friend, and with him went half of my heart and soul. I still find reason for tears every day and probably will for the rest of my life, despite how hard I have tried to be happy with my memories. He was larger than life, and everyone loved him, so it seems still unbelievable that he is gone. Yes – the future we were supposed to spend together is gone and it’s difficult to make my own future. You see the depth of the many losses and I appreciate your putting it into words.

  18. I just stumbled upon this article, and like others have said, it was written for me.
    My first marriage ended in divorce and though the grief was different, it WAS there. Last year, after 13 years of marriage, my second husband died after a long illness
    I have begun to date, and i am generally enjoying my life….but, then I get up one morning and everything makes me cry! It can be as simple a thing as grabbing the wrong coffee cup! There were so many things we wanted to do….

    Thank you for putting words to my sometimes jumbled thoughts!

  19. This is so right on. I lost my sister in August and have felt guilty about having so many tears left inside of me. She was my child for eight years, because she relied on me for everything and I still have the feeling that she is needing me, even though I know all of her needs are met in our heavenly Father. I keep thinking I need to check on her in the middle of the night and before leaving the house. I have questioned my faith and spiritual fortitude because of this. Thank you so much for this post. God bless

  20. i don’t know what all has happened to me. i was doing ok taking care of things around the house and going to work.My husband and i were everything together. i always said we were joined at the hip. thats how close we were. i met him where i work so for me its like double mourning. it got easier going to work but now i haven’t been there goe two days. i don’t know what has happened. i have a grief vounselor who i get along with very well. problem is i feel like i have tr
    aded my husband for him. i know he’s being nice because thats his job and thats him. but soon he will be ending our meetings. i’m already passed the time he should be helping me. i will miss him horribly and feel like i’m grieving him already. some days i feel like a total screw up. i have also messed up my throid medicine which has reallypushed me over the edge. my drs office and the girls at work and my family are all helping me but i am alone in my own body. i have my animals but it takes everything out of me. don’t know what to do anymore.

  21. This is the most wonderful description I have ever read. Even today so many years since my divorce it had great meaning. The first holiday, Christmas, was so difficult.

  22. This is a super article and so true.. As I read the notes written by others who have suffered loss that it’s ok to cry. The 18th will be 3 years since my husband passed.. Sometimes the loneliness is almost unbearable. The Lord and friends give be strength.

  23. This article is me in a nutshell. I lost my husband 4 years ago and still struggle daily with my emotions. I thought I was just crazy with grief. I know people who have moved on and remarried after only 2 years. This article describes so well my feelings .Glad to know I’m ok.

  24. I lost my first husband 39 yrs ago and still have issues over it. my 2nd husband died 6 yrs ago and my mum 3 yrs ago all have had a huge impact on me. it’s left me with a deep seated grief and depression and anxiety that I don’t know if I will ever go back to work. I am 64 yrs.

  25. I lost my son 26, husband, 52, mom 74 , within 18 months. It’s tough, I ve got to get it together for my other kids. I have never, ever felt so lonely in my life.

  26. Thank God for this article! It’s only been a little over 2 years since my husband killed himself and left me to find his body. EVERYTHING I’ve heard or been told is that things get better with time. No, it doesn’t. In my case, I have delayed grief (that I read about today in another article on this great website) which I mistook for getting better and handling it all like a champ because my rational mind understood everything. Nope, there is no escaping grief…and we do ourselves a disservice to think otherwise.

  27. Overall, the “culture” in the United States does not allow for grief and mourning to be lived out and processed. Loss changes everything. Our culture likes to tidy up hard things quickly and move on with the business of living, while missing the point that the feeling of loss and grief are part of life and living.

  28. Lost my husband of 47 years in a moment he stood up collapsed and died of a heart attack everything you said is everything I feel thank you. This happened 2 months ago yet people still say it will get better.

  29. Your last few paragraphs really validate my heart..
    It was truly a shared life..
    My go to person, only man that ever cared about my feelings.
    Thank you..

  30. Thank you for this wonderful article it helped me so much and make sense of the senseless, it really helps, I lost my husband 3 months ago and its like walking in molasses most days, some days are better and some days are just so very hard.

  31. My daughter died five months ago. My only other family members live thousands of miles away. She was company, support, and memory. Her father left us and we cared for each other. At least we tried. I do have friends but it is not the same. Our relationship was complicated but deep and essential. She was my child most in need of support but also the one who gave the most. Those are huge spaces to fill.

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