While literature and articles about the stages of grief exist, secondary loss is a topic that often gets overlooked.
Despite one’s educational, financial, religious or familial background, grief problems are incredibly challenging to cope with, and handling the issues that stem from loss are often just as painful and stressful.
These additional situations that arise are often referred to as secondary losses.
The primary loss means the death. Anything that happens as a result of this central loss is considered secondary.
For example, once one’s partner dies, if there is a significant shift in the household income because there is only one wage earner, the financial loss is the secondary loss.
Other common secondary losses associated with death are loss of home, friendships, medical coverage, job, and relationships with family.
Even subtle changes are still losses. For instance, if a surviving partner has to switch health care coverage post-loss but the deductible is higher or the coverage is not exactly the same — even though they may still have health care — this is still considered a loss.
In doing research for my book, “A Widow’s Guide to Healing: Gentle Support and Advice For the First 5 Years,” my co-author psychologist James Windell and I interviewed more than 100 widows about their experiences.
The widows' ages and socioeconomic status varied, as did the causes of their husbands' deaths. In listening to the widows, what struck me was that for them, learning healthy ways to cope with the secondary losses were just as challenging and painful as their partner’s death.
For many widows, their partner was their “go-to person” who would help them deal with all troubling matters whether it be practical in nature — such as changes in insurance policies — or emotional — such as relationship pressures.
Not having this input from their partners on how to handle these secondary losses adds a deeper dimension to their grief. It makes them feel even more isolated.
If you are a bereaved spouse reading this, and are wondering what the next steps are to try to manage all that is before you, here are six suggestions for coping with secondary losses.
1) Understand that secondary losses are real.
This is a frightening realization, but it is one the initial steps towards healing. Too often trying to blend every subsequent issue into the primary loss makes things even more complex.
Getting a clear and accurate picture of all that is involved is scary but necessary in handing these circumstances.
2) Manage each secondary loss separately with the appropriate person.
For example, the person that the you call at 3 a.m. because you can’t sleep might not be the best person to help you sort out medical bills. Each situation most likely requires a certain strength perspective, and recognizing that one person can’t do it all is key.
3) Reach out for help.
This may sound counter-intuitive as you may think others should be coming to you, so shifting your expectations becomes necessary. Unless you have someone literally knocking at your door with a box of solutions for your secondary losses, then you will probably need to seek help for a particular problem.
Asking others for assistance will also help you feel that you are beginning to gain control of some part of your loss.
4) Attend a support group that is specific to the loss of a partner.
While there are some common themes with grief, it is often most helpful for a bereaved spouse to sit beside others who share the same loss. Hearing about their experiences will help you see that you are not alone.
While you may not walk out of the group with a solution on how to fix your plumbing, you may find comfort in knowing that others are walking the same path.
5) Seek professional help from a licensed clinician.
The emotions that grief ignites are explosive, deep, and can constrict one’s perspective. A clinician can help you sort through the terrors of being alone, and the overwhelming fears that creep up when you least expect them. They can provide guidance and assist you in resolving some of your emotional conflicts.
6) Shift your perspective .
This is probably not what you want to hear. However, as you know by now, life is not fair. Secondary losses carry with them disappointments that can crush you. With each loss, it can either expand your level of compassion or constrict your heart.
Remain open to a new way of seeing things. Often it is in a new light that healing begins.
Healing is clumsy and complex. It begins amidst great skepticism, stubborn pain and a faint heartbeat.
Understanding that secondary losses are separate injuries helps you get a clearer picture of why seeking help is often necessary.
Seeing things through a new lens is part of knowing that you can walk this path.
Kristin Meekhof is a licensed master's level social worker, speaker, writer and author of "A Widow's Guide to Healing." She is also a contributor to the forthcoming book , "Live Happy: Ten Practices for Choosing Joy (Harper Elixir).
Edited by Jody Smith