Recognizing and Grieving Secondary Losses

Author: Jill Harrington-LaMorie

Have you ever thrown a pebble in a still pond and watched its impact? As it settles to the bottom, waves expand outward from the point of entry, disturbing the water in ever growing rings of motion. The one single event of a pebble falling in the water affects all that is around it with multiple, vast, extending ripples. Death has that ripple effect as well, setting off a disturbance that moves across time and space.


The death of someone we care about is a primary event in our lives, the pebble in our pond. But the experience of loss doesn’t end with the funeral. Instead, the death sets in motion subsequent losses, called secondary losses, that occur as a result of the primary loss, creating a sense that we are losing everything, and that the pain will go on forever.

In the military survivor community, we have a saying that death is a “permanent, unaccompanied deployment.” In reality, it is an obvious loss of a life and is considered by many to be the only loss. Because of this, secondary losses are often unanticipated by the bereaved (until they are living through them) and are not well understood by others in the survivors’ lives.

Death changes our world, and part of the work of the grieving process is learning how to adjust to a new, assumptive world. The changes death brings are physical, personal, social, spiritual, emotional, and psychological. Death alters our environment to include a defined ending and the demand for a new beginning.

One of the new demands placed on the bereaved is to identify the losses that follow the death. Grieving secondary losses is a normal and healthy part of learning to live in a newly changed world. It is important to acknowledge the losses that have already taken place, recognize those that are currently taking place, and envision losses that the future will bring. We need to know that each identified secondary loss will require its own grief response in its own way and in its own time.

Family and friends also need to recognize secondary losses and the associated grief they bring. In wanting to see their loved ones happy and “getting on with life,” they can unwittingly deny or disenfranchise real feelings of grief. Awareness, patience, and understanding can allow us to move through our grief.

The following are some of the losses we may experience after the death of a loved one, friend, or family member. Individuals will not necessarily experience all the losses mentioned here and may experience additional losses not mentioned in this article.

Loss of Family Structure: the instantaneous change in family composition. A radical change has taken place in the immediate family. For siblings, birth order is changed. For parents, a challenge comes when people ask, “How many children do you have?” For spouses, there is no longer another adult in the home. For children, there may now be only one parent. Remaining family members must take on new responsibilities or jobs around the house that had previously been performed by the deceased.  

Loss of a Primary Relationship: loss of a significant person who was prominent in your life. The time you spent together, conversations you had together, and activities you enjoyed together have ended. There may also be a loss of things you wished you did together, but never had the chance to accomplish. Special memories you shared are now yours alone. For spouses and adult partners, there is an end to an intimate sexual relationship. For parents, an adult child was just becoming a friend. For siblings, the friendship was being experienced on a more mature basis.

Loss of the Familiar Way of Relating to Family and Friends: avoidance of family and friends because they do not know how to respond to the bereaved person’s changed status. Survivors may find that friends avoid them at social functions, at work, or in the hallways at school. This can bring additional sadness and anger to the bereaved. Changes for the remaining children can include new people in their lives, different babysitters, more or less time with grandparents, and changes in daily routines or afterschool activities.  

Loss of Support Systems: loss of friends, family, community organizations, and others who help to sustain and lend strength on a daily basis. We say that grief has a way of changing our address books. When we look for those who have been there for us in the past, they seem to have disappeared. At a time when we most need extra attention, we often have to develop new systems of support.

Loss of a Chosen Lifestyle: being forced to begin a new way of life despite one’s personal wishes. For surviving spouses, this means being single again and possibly childless. For siblings, it can mean becoming an only child. For parents whose only child dies, it can mean the loss of future grandchildren.  

Loss of Financial Security: serious financial loss associated with death. In many cases, the primary wage earner is gone. For others, there can be loss of employment due to the grief process or serious debt incurred by the deceased or as a result of the death.

Loss of the Past:inability to share memories of the past journey with the deceased. For survivors who are left alone by the death, there will be no “remember when’s.” This can also apply to surviving siblings, even though their parents remain, because they are now only children.

Loss of the Future:the immediate cessation of plans made with the deceased. This is a large piece of the grief journey for survivors of a young adult death. The losses can include growing old together, having children with that person, watching that person graduate from college, watching them begin their own family, celebrating birthdays/graduations/marriages of children, being able to resolve unfinished business, and the wish of living happily ever-after, to name a few.

Loss of Dreams: disillusionment resulting from the disappearance of the plans listed above. This is especially true when a young person dies. Survivors grieve not only a past and present with that person, but also future hopes, goals, and dreams. The untimely death results in a shortened life for the deceased but a longer remaining lifetime for young survivors who are learning to live with loss.  

Loss of Identity: loss of the roles that you no longer fulfill in a relationship. Parents who are now childless may no longer consider themselves parents; surviving spouses are no longer lovers; a surviving sibling may be an only child. This loss of role can be in the home, in the family, at work, among friends, and in the community, as well.

Loss of a Large Chunk of Self: loss of the part of the self that was given to the other person in love, and that death seems to have violently ripped from one’s being. Intangibles that we freely gave to someone are now gone.

Loss of Self-Confidence: a survivor’s failure to recognize his or her own personal self-efficacy. It is easy to make human mistakes on this unknown journey, especially in the initial weeks and months when our attention is completely taken by the death. This can lead to feelings of inadequacy or the thought that we are not able to do anything right.

Loss of Ability to Make Decisions: the insecurity following the loss of self-confidence that causes the survivor to look for direction and advice from others. Many survivors wonder, “What should I do now?” If the deceased had input in making decisions, there is now a void in the process. Survivors are forced to rely on themselves to make choices without that person, which can lead to confusion and indecision. 

Loss of Ability to See Choices: the sense that the survivor has no control over his or her life, leading to an inability to accept that there are still alternatives, options, and allowable preferences. Because the new lifestyle was not a conscious choice, it is harder to see that choices still remain.

Loss of Trust:inability to have faith in a positive outcome. Death can shatter our trust in the world, those around us, and ourselves. Trusting enough to open oneself to love again can be very painful and is often avoided by many.

Loss of Security: inability to feel safe. Knowing that the world is an unsafe, unpredictable place can lead to feelings of anxiety and vulnerability. It can be accompanied by uncertainty of what to expect, what will happen next, or how we will react or respond. For survivors who relocate, the changes in homes, sleeping arrangements, schools, churches, and neighborhoods can heighten the feeling of insecurity.

Loss of a Sense of Humor: the failure to see anything funny. Because of the pain associated with losing an important person in our life, we may not feel like laughing at anything. In the immediate aftermath of the death, we even wonder whether it is still okay to find humor in situations, happiness in events, and enjoyment in life.  

Loss of Patience: the loss of our normal ability to tolerate impaired skills and less-than-ideal reactions. We become impatient with our inability to recover, feel better, and handle normal stress. This can lead to feelings of inadequacy and failure, as the process of grieving normally lasts for several years. In addition, we may find ourselves crying more, yelling more, or arguing more with those we love.

Loss of Ability to Focus and Function: loss of concentration due to preoccupation with feelings of pain and sadness. Many survivors report that their ability to focus has become impaired. Focus and full functionality can be difficult to recover, especially if there was trauma involved. There can also be a significant loss of energy, both physically and emotionally. It is estimated by some that one hour of grieving is comparable to eight hours of manual labor.

Loss of Health: the physical problems resulting from emotional stress, pain, trauma, shock, and grief. Many survivors experience sleep problems, eating problems, heart issues, headaches, stomach problems, depression, anxiety, or all the above. It is a good idea to seek medical attention following a death so that health problems are not compounded.

A Final Word: It takes time and patience to heal. It is my hope that this list will help all grievers, friends, and caregivers to understand why nothing can replace the grieving process. The grief process helps us survive all kinds of losses and challenges, so that we can make the necessary adjustments to new circumstances. Awareness of the many secondary losses that can accompany a death can help the grieving person and those around him or her to be more patient as they learn to navigate their way through a new world, charting a new course as they embark on their pioneer journey to their future life.

Jill Harrington-LaMorieBy Jill Harrington-LaMorie, DSW, LCSW: Dr. Jill Harrington LaMorie is the surviving spouse of Navy Lieutenant Commander Andrew LaMorie and proud mother of their children, Madeline and Alexander. She served as the TAPS Director of Professional Education for three years, as well as being a peer mentor, group facilitator, and workshop presenter. Jill completed her doctorate in social work at The University of Pennsylvania and currently works as the Senior Field Researcher on the National Military Family Bereavement Study.