Grief can be an uncomfortable topic for many to think about, much less talk about with others. The topic can elicit feelings of fear, uncertainty, and anxiety which makes it understandable that many would like to avoid this topic at all costs. Yet with that said, the reality is that loss is an inevitable event that we all will eventually experience.
Why then, with the inevitability that comes along with loss, do we look to avoid the topic to the extent that we do? To assist with gaining some perspective, let's talk about and define what it means to be living in a death denying culture.
A death denying culture is one that looks to avoid thinking about, talking about, and acknowledging that death will at some point be a part of reality for us all. Many would rather sweep the topic of death and loss under the rug as quickly as possible, which is often reflected in our current culture and various levels of responses to loss. For example, generally bereavement benefit time through work typically does not exceed 3-5 business days, sending the message that a person should be able to get back to work following the significant loss and if unable to return there must be steps taken to use further sick/benefit time. Further, it is more common than not that after about 6 months following a significant loss, people express concern that the bereaved person is not starting to “move on” or “get past it”. Moreover, the advancement of modern medicine can reinforce the idea that we can prolong the reality of loss.
So how does this relate to, and what even are secondary losses? Before diving into secondary losses, we can define primary losses as being the actual death of a person or being. Secondary losses, then, are changes in relationships, lifestyle, roles or status, and/or stability that are either related to a primary loss or any other major life transition. In other words, secondary losses are the loss of something that is not an actual death.
To further illustrate secondary losses let’s look at various examples. Many medical events can bring on secondary losses, such as a loved one in a coma. Their body is still alive though we’re unable to interact with them as normally as well as it being potentially uncertain if we will ever be able to again. If our physical abilities become limited due to either an accident, a diagnosis, or the normal aging process, it can be common to feel the loss of our physical independence as we’re used to and a struggle to begin relying on others to assist with basic needs such as going to a store or showering. The loved ones of those who engage in substance misuse can experience a sense of loss for the person their loved one used to be, as certain aspects of that person's personality may not be present due to new behaviors related to substances. Furthermore, the secondary losses related to the death of a person can be anticipated depending on the types of relationships, but also potentially unanticipated and very nuanced depending on the relationship dynamics.
An example of an anticipated secondary loss can be if the sick and dying spouse is the one who has been primarily responsible for the finances for the duration of the relationship. The loss of a family member can also mean the loss of the comic relief that would break tension within the family as needed.
Secondary losses can even be related to positive life events or transitions. Graduations bring on many feelings of happiness and excitement, but it can be helpful to acknowledge the loss of the familiar routine, the people we’re used to interacting with, and a sense of comfort. Weddings and new babies are joyous occasions and can bring on a change in family dynamics and/or roles within the family unit or sense of loss of the life/independence we once had. Even retirement, which is baked into the typical “American Dream” and is generally what many are working towards one day, can bring on a loss of identity, roles, or status.
Minimizing the impacts of primary and secondary loss can exacerbate and further complex the ongoing grief and bereavement process which, unfortunately, is all too likely to occur within our death-denying culture. The longer acute and latent grief goes unresolved, the more likely it is to develop into prolonged grief and can have significant, negative impacts on our overall psychological functioning. Whether related to a primary loss or other life transition, it may be helpful to begin to think about how secondary losses have potentially impacted us or have been minimized within our significant experiences. It can also be beneficial to think about our death-denying culture, and how the attitude of avoidance has potentially affected our experience of loss and subsequent expression of bereavement.
And finally, this could be an opportune time to check in with our current comfort level. How uncomfortable has it been reading about different concepts related to loss and bereavement? Depending on where we’re finding ourselves falling on the scale of comfort level related to loss, it may be helpful to take a deep breath and keep in mind that with the right support, there are ways to safely gain a deeper comfort level with the uncomfortable reality and inevitability of loss.