The death of a loved one is often the most anguishing event of any individual’s life experience.
A sudden and unexpected death is often described to me as “…a gut punch… unbelievable… the bottom has fallen out of my world…” Even if the death is expected or had been long anticipated, the actual moment that we learn of the death can only be described as shocking, devastating, and often times surreal. We are immediately plunged into the tasks of mourning which involve notifying others, funeral planning, and managing others’ reactions and expressions of sympathy, which often feel shallow amidst our anguishing despair.
Our loved one’s physical absence is the first and most significant loss we have to navigate. His slippers are still by his chair, her coffee mug sits by the sink, or their last message to us is still in our voicemail box—but they’re not here… and never will be again. It is this unending absence that preoccupies our every moment in the immediate aftermath of their death.
In time, though, other equally profound losses begin to surface, and we become aware of the many additional layers of grief yet to come.
…that dreamed of vacation to Europe will never happen… …he won’t walk me down the aisle on my wedding day… …she’ll never meet my future children… …I have to sell our home because I can’t afford to stay here alone… …she managed all the finances… I don’t know where to begin…
This list—known as ‘secondary losses’—is long, and each of these losses can bring just as much sorrow as our loved one’s physical absence. What’s worse, these losses are not all apparent right away. They emerge slowly, over the course of the rest of our lives, and bring with them a fresh resurgence of despair and the need for continued grief work, often at a time when we may have thought we had gotten through the worst of it.
The most important feature of coping with all these secondary losses is simply acknowledging them as they come up. Reaching back out to those support people who have been with us from the beginning can provide comfort, as we feel the need to talk about and process new and unexpected aspects of our loss experience.
Planning for and allowing ourselves to feel all the feelings as they arise is a healthy response to the experience of secondary losses. Acknowledging that our grief will continue to surge long after the actual death is a large part of the task of grief work. After all, there is no way of knowing in advance what can happen to take us ‘down to our knees’ again. Tolerating this renewed pain as we continue to take those small steps forward into the rest of our own lives is part of the anguishing process of healing from loss.
Some of these steps could include:
…beginning to consider some type of vacation for yourself—maybe with others—in the future… …determining how best to honor his memory at your wedding… …journaling about your loved one’s life, loves, and accomplishments for future generations to read… …seeking help from others in determining how and when to downsize… …hiring a financial consultant to help organize and prioritize the management of your finances…
The reality of the loss of a loved one is that our lives will never be the same as before. Recognizing and accepting grief’s unfinished business of ongoing secondary losses is a tall task of grief work. A task that requires self-compassion and humility as we come to terms with aspects of our grief experience that we couldn’t have imagined in the early days after their death.
Grief is a lonely journey; but you need not go it alone. There IS a difference between feeling lonely and being alone. The help of a professional grief counselorcan be a healthy act of self-care as the enormity of grief’s unfinished business becomes apparent over the passage of time.