You’ve been moving through life. You know there is no “normal” except maybe the new one you are trying to figure out, but you’re carrying the weight of your loss more effectively. You can (almost) control the days you can’t control because you are back to work and everyone expects normalcy. You’ve come to accept that sorrow flows through your veins like the part of you it has become, but you are thinking forward and you even laugh sometimes. It feels good to laugh. You’ve found some reasons to keep going and it occurs to you that you are surviving this thing you thought you never could. But you are also starting to realize there’s more. The ripple effect.
“Secondary losses” are another part of the long and ever-changing road bereaved parents walk. I’ve always tried to represent this experience true as it is to me and the people like me going through it and this is an immense part of the experience.
BEFORE AND AFTER
The stark contrast of life then and now is hard to imagine unless you are living it. The before and after. The people, places and experiences that used to be, but aren’t or can’t be any longer. That is the matrix of secondary loss.
The line that divides “before and after” does not just represent a red slash on a time-line, it represents a cosmic shift of everything that defines who we are, (or who we thought we would be) -our life, our hopes, future and stability. There is a jarring realization that the existential force we thought held our life together and prevented bad things from happening, was merely a mirage. The intimate knowledge that bad things do happen is a part of the “after” we have to live with.
The notion that nothing will ever be the same again is further solidified and not just because your child is gone, but because the ripple effect is so vast that it changes the landscape of life immediately and always.
When the black haze starts to recede, the secondary losses come into focus.
WHAT IS SECONDARY LOSS?
Secondary implies lesser, collateral or insignificant. They are a consequence of the primary loss, but they are anything but insignificant. Secondary losses as a result of losing a child are indeed significant as they don’t represent things as much as they represent the who’s, the how’s and the why’s of the parent’s world. It means that there’s more to heal from, there is more to make them a foreigner in their own life, to make them realize everything they knew and a lot of people in their life will never be who they thought they were. The sting of secondary losses can continue to unfold as the months and years pass by. Each parent will experience these losses differently but the list includes;
Loss of marriage * loss of family structure * loss of home (due to finances or emotional trauma) * loss of job * loss of lifestyle loss of identity * loss of church * loss of family * loss of friends * loss of social circle * loss of family activities and traditions * loss of support group * loss of health * loss of hope and joy * loss of confidence * loss of trust * loss of ability to make decisions * loss of mental capacity and creativity, to name a few.
Grieving parents are so overwhelmed with trying to put one foot in front of the other and RE-create their new world, that they don’t realize what is happening until, for example, one day they realize an important person hasn’t called or checked in with them in months or perhaps not at all. They may want to call them but there is no energy or motivation to reach out when your life is so different and so wrong. The tendency is to hole up where the risk of pain is much less. Their need is so great for their “people” that they often feel abandoned or angry. The thought process may go something like this;
“Who wants to hear about my life? I have nothing good to say anymore.”, “I just can’t hear about their latest vacation and how they couldn’t call because they were so busy with their intact family.”, “He’s going to tell me that we all go through ‘seasons’ and I’m going to want to pound him.”, “It takes everything in me to get through a week, why do I have to be the one to hold this friendship together as well?”, “If he had any idea what this is like he would make the effort. He just doesn’t care enough to want to know.”
So we don’t call.
WHAT DOES SECONDARY LOSS LOOK LIKE?
volunteering at your child’s school several days a week, being there everyday when they get off the bus to hear about their day and help them with homework. Your nights and weekends for years are spent with the same group of adults on the sidelines of a soccer field or along the wall of a dance studio. Adults, all with children your child’s age, that have become your friends and a large part of your circle and your routine. Your weekends revolve around games and tournaments, shows and competitions. Then one day, it’s all gone because your child is gone. The people, the routine, the time, the places and events, the sheer joy in watching your child laugh and thrive- gone. Everyone else goes on except you and your child and you’re left with nothing but empty time.
Loss of social circle, loss of routine, loss of lifestyle.
all the places and experiences big and small you’ve thought about sharing with your child. Mission trips to Africa, white water rafting in Colorado, weekends fishing and jumping off the boat, or just eating ice-cream cones on the front porch in summer. Imagine even the most basic of dreams- high school, getting a drivers permit, prom, graduation, all of them- gone. Many of your favorite places you’ll never set foot in again because the memories you shared there with your child make it far to painful to go back.
Loss of hopes and dreams, loss of future, loss of meaningful places, loss of joy.
losing your job, a position you worked years to obtain, because the company you worked for expected you to be back and productive in 4 weeks when, at 4 weeks, you were suffering nightmares, trying to get a few hours sleep a night, holding up your distraught wife and other grieving children and still struggling to make it until noon without an emotional collapse. Or the business you invested your life savings in falling apart while you were trying to keep your family from doing the same. So you sell what’s left of it off for parts and hope somehow you’ll get a job and be able to keep the kids in college.
Loss of job, loss of financial security, loss of status, loss of confidence, loss of title.
You don’t know what to do with the pain you are in. You expect and desperately need your friends and family to try and understand that this is still happening to you. You need their acknowledgment, but after a few months the phone calls rarely come and when they do the conversation is kept safe and distant. You know they don’t want to ‘go there.’ Or worse, you’re asked, “Are you starting to move on?”,” You need to stop being so sad, things will get better.” You realize those that are supposed to be there with you for the distance aren’t. They didn’t take 15 minutes to research what you’re going through so they wouldn’t say or do things that hurt so much. When they do call, you may not even answer because the empty conversation and evasion hurts more than not talking to them at all.
Loss of family, loss of friends, loss of support, loss of trust.
These scenarios are real and frequent in the world of grief, but particularly child loss. It’s not an illness that resolves in 6 months, a year or 2 years. It evolves over the course of a lifetime and this, sadly, is part of that evolution. Secondary loss represents an underlying theme of pain, anger and in some cases, bitterness, that develops as a side story to the most painful life event imaginable.
If there is one thing I am learning about the fortitude and resiliency of the human spirit, it’s that it is programmed to endure and survive. Additional loss seems like cruelty on top of cruelty, however, we soldier on. We survive that too because after losing a child, we know there is nothing we can’t endure. We can say “good bye” and turn from the things that pain because we may not survive if we didn’t. We re-create our lives because it’s in a mothers DNA to make the best with what you have. So we make a home without our child, we make a living from the scraps that remain and appreciate the blessing in new-found friends and strangers who continue to communicate their love and prayers for you. God fills in the gaps. It may not be the familiar or the expected, but He fills the gaps.
“But my God shall supply all your need according to His riches in glory by Christ Jesus.” Phil. 4:19