Updated February 9th, 2020
When someone we love dies whether that death was expected or not it can bring about feelings of shock. Shock that life can be so fragile, that someone who was so very loved could be taken from us. The sense of loss can be catastrophic. What is often not discussed are the secondary losses that can be felt. Those of us who have experienced grief know the feelings you are meant to feel. Sadness, anger, pain. We expect to feel those things. But what we often don’t expect are how we will react to the secondary losses after someone has died.
These can come in different ways and are unique to every individual.
Over the years I have witnessed many families who have encountered secondary loss. For Georgia it was losing ownership of her daughter’s grave. Her little girl Ava had died aged seven in a tragic accident. Her and Ava’s father had split up years before and he was very controlling. It had been the reason for their split. After Ava’s death he tried to control every aspect of the funeral arrangements and then subsequently the burial plot. He blamed her for the little girl’s death and felt he had more right to Ava’s resting place than she did. Georgia and her side of the family would place flowers or little trinkets on the grave. Every time they revisited their items would be damaged or even removed altogether. Dads flowers and his side of the family’s items were intact, lovingly adorning the grave. This continued for months and eventually Georgia stopped placing flowers until it got so distressing, she stopped visiting. After the loss of her precious daughter Georgia was heartbroken. To lose the ability to visit her grave, pay her respects and spend time with her daughter was crippling. The grief she felt was compounded by this second wave of loss. It felt like an insult to what she had already experienced.
For Vicky her secondary loss occurred after the death of her daughter Lily. Lily had been a much-wanted little girl. Her stillbirth at full term crushed her parents and sent ripples of grief throughout the extended family. For Vicky the healing process was long and painful. It was exasperated when her own Mother would continually use possessive words to describe her granddaughter. There were comments when speaking to people about Lily such as ‘my little girl. My baby. My angel.’ For Vicky this was too much. Lily was her daughter and the use of such owning words was too much. She had already lost her daughter once and now it felt like even her memory was being taken, with her own mother as she describes ‘staking her claim’.
For others it is the general public as a whole. When I cared for a young man who had died of cancer his death was reported and made public news as he was a well-known member of the local community. There were outpourings of grief in newspapers and social media. The man’s sister was perplexed why people who did not know her brother were so upset. Yes, he was young and yes he was much liked within his community, but the sheer volume of messages and comments were just overwhelming. She appreciated that people were just trying to be kind but the attendance at his funeral of people who didn’t actually know him, who had never spoken a word to him, was a step too far. She described it as people trying to steal her grief from her. Although her brother was well known she personally was a very private person. She wanted to grieve privately and said she felt like because other people were publicly mourning, and she wasn’t, that she somehow cared less than they did. It was a facet to her grief she didn’t know would impact her so much.
Public mourning is not a new concept. The overwhelming outpouring of grief after the death of Princess Diana was unprecedented. People who had never met her were seen wailing in streets, and visibly distressed mourners lined the streets of London to pay their respects. The relatively new use of social media seems to have massively affected how we grieve these days and public displays of emotion are often a way in which people grieve online. Some people find it helpful sharing inspirational quotes, sayings and passages. We all need to do what we feel is right for us. But often the opinions of others can impact how we feel.
For Kimberley her secondary loss occurred when she was told she should be over her sons’ death by now and to keep posting about him on social media was too much. She struggled to understand why on her personal social media she was being admonished for showing how she felt. She didn’t have a family to talk to and her online community meant so much to her. The virtual friends she had met following on from her stillborn son David’s death were a great source of comfort. But for her regular friends it was too intrusive. When she was told by someone that they found photographs she shared of her son too upsetting she was shocked. Her precious only son had died and now she was being made to feel bad for celebrating his short but important life. The thought that she could be denied her freedom to show off her precious son was upsetting. She said ‘I knew when I was told David had died that the coming period of my life would be the hardest I’d ever have to face. I had suffered grief before so knew loosely what to expect. But this was my child and I knew it was going to be a test of my own strength. But to then be denied the ability to recognise that although his life was short it had impacted me and would do forever, I was speechless. It felt like I had lost him all over again.’
Secondary losses can be complicated when no one has actually done anything wrong but yet fate intervenes.
Julie’s little brother died more than 30 years ago, aged just 20 months. As a family they always noted the anniversary. For so long the 27th of August was always Calum’s day. When Julie’s uncle died of a heart attack on the 27th of August two years ago, they were in shock. Not only because this lion of a man had been taken so cruelly without allowing them to say goodbye, but because it was on ‘Calum’s day’. They were so very sad, and yet some family were comforted thinking it had been the same day, but Julie’s aunt had a little pang to think now it would be known as ‘their’ day rather than Calum’s day. When you lose a child, you don’t just lose that child but all that they could and would have become. To then have something else like their special day taken, is difficult. This secondary loss was not something that anyone had done wrong and nobody could have predicted, but it was still a feeling of being denied that unique date for her son.
For Lisa it was the Police investigation after her daughter’s death that proved to be another loss she was not expecting. Jade had been killed in a head on collision whilst her boyfriend was drink driving. Her body was classed as evidence so was held for many weeks after her death. Lisa was numb with shock, struggling to think of a life without her daughter, but not being able to make funeral arrangements was causing her even more distress. The man who had driven the car that had killed her daughter had denied Lisa a future with her little girl. He had prevented her seeing her get married, graduate and bring home grandchildren, but now due to something he had done wrong she was being stopped from burying her daughter. Jade had been innocent. She wasn’t drunk, she wasn’t speeding, and she had apparently asked him many times to slow down. Lisa had done nothing wrong and yet she felt like she was being punished with this inability to lay her daughter to rest. The impact of Jade’s death was felt deeply, but the delay on releasing her body, although she understood took something else from Lisa.
For some it is how their grief makes other people feel. When someone feels uncomfortable with your grief that then becomes about how they feel rather than how you feel. And again, ownership is removed from the person that should be grieving, to the person who now has an issue with it.
Grief is a complex and intricate emotion. What affects some does not affect others. What may bring comfort to some could offend and upset others. How we react to grief will determine these secondary losses. What is important is we do only what is right for us as no two experiences are the same. And wider society needs to accept that grief is unique to the individual and the grieving should be able to respond accordingly.