When your person dies there are a lot of obvious losses, every moment of your day is affected by their absence. This early grief is acute and you drown in it. Time passes, you put in the work, and you move forward. You settle into your “new normal.” And it is here that the secondary losses come in.
These are also referred to as ‘hidden losses’ or the ‘other’ losses that come with losing a loved one. The smaller losses that come after the tremendous loss. Nobody warned me about these. I think it’s one of the reasons grief is so hard. People don’t think about all the secondary losses you are experiencing, sometimes even years after your person has died.
Some of these losses are simple. Recently one of the tires on my car was loosing air and I needed to take it to the shop. Of course the puncture was too close to the rim to be fixed and, of course, they did not have my correct tire in stock. Thankfully, I live close to a ton of family members and I was able to borrow a car (rocking that minivan) from one of them. Even though it all worked out, I couldn’t help but think how much easier the whole process would have been if I still had a husband. And not in a, “I need a man to take care of the car” kind of way-obviously I handled it. It just would have been logistically so much easier if my husband were still living.
But many secondary losses are also complicated, at least mine are, because of the way they are intertwined with other people. They are the types of losses that make you feel like you are, “being a downer” or burdening other people with your grief. The ones that make you feel like the ‘needy’ friend, or the one who makes everything about themselves. The ones that make you think, “I guess I’m still not over it” as if being ‘over it’ was something worth achieving. Here are some secondary losses I’ve been struck with recently.
A long marriage. I was married at 25, it was perfectly reasonable to assume that, barring medical catastrophe, I could have a 50+ year marriage. But now I am 32 and single. 50+ years would require not just commitment but also an above average lifespan (and a lot more success with online dating). I feel that loss every time another couple celebrates an anniversary over 6 years because I never got that. I will, most likely, never win the “married couple dance” at a wedding. And yes, I am petty enough for that to bother me.
Children with my late husband. Not many people know that before my husband died we had been trying to have a child for almost a year, we were actually in the process of fertility testing. Now I will never have that chance. It is certainly possible that I could have children with someone else but I will always wonder what a child with my late husband would have been like. What our combination of genes would’ve produced. That was a child I wanted to meet. I feel this loss with every pregnancy announcement. I feel this loss whenever I spend time with my adorable, precious, smart, inquisitive, wonderful nephews who are way better than all of your nephews. Because my fabulous, charming, funny nephews are the closest I will ever get to seeing what my child might have been like.
Friendships. This wasn’t intentional, but there are some friends who were couple friends. Now that I am single the friendships simply don’t fit anymore. I don’t have any ill-will or think that either party did anything wrong but I feel the loss anytime a holiday we used to celebrate as a group passes. I feel the loss when I come to group events as a single person and notice that now, I don’t belong in this group anymore. I’m not excluded or ostracized, the balance is just off, it doesn’t fit.
Youth Group. My husband and I worked with all ages of children and youth at our church. We really loved it. By it I mean we loved the work but we especially loved the kids. We went to their concerts and games, we heard all about their lives and we genuinely enjoyed spending time with them. And I really miss it (most of it, I don’t really miss staying up late and sleeping on the church couch). But I don’t think I’m ready to go back…yet. I can’t watch someone else do the things that my husband used to do. This one may not be a loss forever, but for now I feel the loss every time a new event is publicized, every time pictures are posted, and every time I drive by the church and see an activity we are not at.
Some of you may have already figured out why this is complicated. Because if people knew their joy was causing me pain it would lessen their joy. They could feel like they need to censor their speech around me and I absolutely do not want that. So I don’t talk about it. This is the grief that is kept close, the grief that is suffered in silence. Not talking about it makes me feel like I am protecting the people around me. I tell myself, “I don’t need to make them feel bad,” or, “my honest reaction is too much for them.” But to not talk about it is an insult to the strength of our relationships and it makes grief lonelier than it needs to be.
This is why the concept of both/and is so important. I can be both sad that I do not get a chance at a 50+ year marriage and so proud that you did. I can be both overjoyed that you are having a baby and feel the emptiness of not getting that chance myself. To paraphrase Hermione Granger, I can have more than the emotional range of teaspoon. At my last visit my nephew was pointing at everyone around the table and naming them, Mom, brother, etc. He said, “This is my family, I like my family.” Then he pointed at me and said, “and you are the rest of my family.” I was both unbelievably touched and completely devastated. Because I am the rest of his family and he is mine, but there should be more-he had more family. That’s the both/and. I get to be his aunt. That makes me so happy and I am never giving that up. But my husband no longer gets to be his uncle. What a loss for all of us.