Secondary Losses

I recently discovered the Speaking Grief website, which captured my attention with its big “Let’s get better at grief” banner. If you or a loved one are struggling with grief, I highly recommend that you check out the website, which takes a humane and compassionate approach to grief and includes a link to the organization’s documentary on grief.

In exploring the website, I came across an explanation of “secondary loss.” As the website explains, “the death of a loved one is considered the primary loss” and “experiences that flow from that death are called secondary losses.” The website lists categories in which secondary losses typically occur as support systems, home, dreams, identity, hopes, financial stability, faith, health, relationships, sense of belonging, and self worth. Another website I’ve mentioned before, Cake, describes secondary losses as “unanticipated changes in your life created by the primary loss.

At just about six months since Tom’s death, I am feeling several secondary losses:  

  • My identity as a wife and caregiver. Although “widow” has always seemed like a scary word to me, dripping with negative and even evil connotations (probably because of pop culture references to widows and a family member’s romantic relationship with a widow who was later convicted of having murdered at least one of her late husbands—you can’t make this stuff up), I find it feels like a better fit than “single person.” What it means to be a widow, to move through the world as a widow, is still unclear to me. A lot of what I do everyday is different as a widow than as a wife and caregiver. Whereas many hours of my day were taken up with being a wife and caregiver, I now have more time to myself and no one to be accountable to for it. That sounds lovely on the surface, but I am learning that it can feel rather depressing to realize that no one cares how I spend my time. Everything is disorienting—I am doing many of the things I’ve always done, but doing them as a widow makes it feel like a new, unfamiliar place. Cooking dinner for one person isn’t at all the same as cooking dinner for yourself and another. Eating dinner alone is certainly different from eating with a partner.
  • Hopes and dreams: Tom and I had many shared hopes and dreams. Many of our shared dreams were quiet ones: for example, he had started coming with me in his motorized wheelchair when I walked the dogs in the morning and we were looking forward to that continuing. We were hoping that once COVID restrictions were lifted, he could visit the rehab facility he “graduated” from to see his favorite therapists and show them how far he had come. Some of our dreams were more grandiose: we were going to buy him a trackchair so he could enjoy being outside (and he wanted to get the snow plow attachment so he could be a neighborhood hero all winter long). We were going to find a way to get him out on the river again and to travel. I was researching wheelchair-friendly cities. I had learned that the public beaches in Oregon, Tom’s favorite place, have beach wheelchairs available. Now all of those plans are irrelevant.
  • Energy: I am emotionally exhausted all the time. Grieving is hard emotional work that does not respect boundaries. In response to the exhaustion, I find myself napping more that I used to and unable to concentrate on intellectual tasks. I notice that I often walk so slowly I sometimes wonder mid-stride, “Am I going to tip over?” (This thought doesn’t speed me up at all—it simply adds to the suspense.) I have not tipped over yet, but every walk is a new adventure.
  • Confidence about going to new places: With my vision impairment, going to unfamiliar places is always a little nerve-wracking to me. Tom had gotten really good at anticipating things that would (often literally) trip me up, like badly marked steps, uneven sidewalks and potholes, signs that lack contrast, and the like. Navigating new places on my own is possible and I am sure I’ll get better it, but at this point, it is creating a lot of anxiety for me.

I have been lucky (so far) to not suffer two of the more common secondary losses, health and finances, but because they are so often experienced, I want to touch on them. Many people experience health impacts after the death of a loved one, and the New York Times actually reported recently on a study that found that parents who lost children have a higher incidence of heart attacks over time. Regarding finances, I’m quite lucky that my job is secure and pays well enough that I am not in danger of losing my house, which is a serious concern for many widows. I have been arguing with our health insurance over their denial of a very hefty bill from June 2020, but I am confident they will end up covering that.

I also want to mention that as heartbreaking and tumultuous as it is to survive Tom’s death, I have experienced some secondary gains:

  • Sense of compassion and connection to others. I have been touched by how many people have reached out to me to express sympathy and compassion for my loss. Often these conversations turn to losses they have experienced, and I am learning that nearly everyone on this planet has suffered a profound loss. This makes me feel connected to people I would not automatically feel connected to and helps me understand the context around negative behavior I sometimes see in others.
  • Identity as a writer. Although I have taught writing practice and theory for 28 years now and published scholarly work, I have never identified as a “writer.” With my blogging, CaringBridge posts, and longer-than-usual Facebook posts remembering Tom, I found not only that I enjoy memoir-type writing but that folks enjoy reading what I write. This has opened up for me the possibility of writing a book length memoir and shorter essay-length memoir pieces.
  • Confidence in my strength. Surviving the worst event I could imagine makes me feel a little bit fearless.
  • Deepened family relationships: My relationships with Tom’s immediate and extended family have grown stronger as we’ve shared memories of Tom and supported each other in grieving.
  • Much appreciation for my luck and privilege. As always, I recognize that as a white middle-class woman with tenure, the impacts of my grief are not made more challenging by racism.