Updated: Sep 7
As if the death of a child wasn't enough, parents who have lost a child have to deal with a lifetime of losses, or secondary losses. Loss of a child is the primary loss and everything after that, or the ripples, is secondary loss. These are the reminders that there will be no happily-ever-after for us, or our kids.
No one can prepare us for this because it's a gradual unfolding as we live our lives. We realize we have to endure the loss of more than just our child.
Everything changes after our child dies.
Secondary losses are part of the reason why grief lasts a lifetime. Not only are we faced to live a life that isn't the one we intended to live, but the reality is that we will face secondary loss for the rest of our days. I think this is an important thing for our supporters, friends, and family to know as well.
This collateral damage generally unfolds over time and is often unanticipated. You don't think about it until you have to face it.
Some things may seem obvious, such as living through all the annual events that our kids should be here for. Examples are birthdays, Christmas, and family holidays. But the secondary losses go way beyond those times.
Here is a list of some of the secondary losses you might face on your grief journey:
1. Loss of identity. No matter how many children you have, losing a child changes your identity. I am now seen as a mom of one (even though I always say I am the mom of two). I'm also 'labelled' as the mom whose child died. Maybe you are too. I'm sure no one means any harm by that, but sometimes I feel like that's what I am most known for.
2. Loss of friends/changed relationships. Death makes people weird and awkward. Sometimes people avoid us because they don't know what to say or do. We are any parent's worst nightmare and we make child loss a reality that no one wants to think about. If it can happen to us, it can happen to anyone. If people avoid us, they avoid acknowledging that they could lose a child too. And some people.....well, they just get tired of hearing about our loss. Personally, I don't have the time or energy for that, so those relationships fizzle.
3. Loss of sense of safety. If my daughter could die in a car accident on dry roads, in the absence of alcohol and drugs, and without cellphone use or distracted driving, certainly anyone could die any time. My sense of reality changed the night my daughter Katie died. There are no guarantees. When the front door closes behind someone, it could be the last time I see them. I don't like living in fear, but this is a by-product of loss.
4. Loss of family structure. In my heart, we will always be a family of four, but on the outside we are a family of three now. There is a huge, gaping hole in my family, in my house, and even at my kitchen table. Coping with the question "how many children do you have?" nearly brings me to my knees some days. At restaurants, I have caught myself answering 'four' when the hostess asks "for how many?".
5. Loss of my child's future...and mine. Not only are the birthdays, Christmases, and family holidays mourned, but so is the wedding my daughter will never have, the family she will never get to begin, and all the milestones that every parent looks forward to. Graduation season continues to be a struggle for me. Katie was an academic and a fashionista. She was looking forward to graduating grade 12 with so much anticipation. I am reminded every year that she will never get past grade 12. I will never get to be the mother of the bride and help Katie with her wedding and I will not get to hold her children. When other people share updates about their children, there is nothing to update about Katie. There are no photos and no new memories with her.
6. Loss of mental wellbeing. Gone are the days that I could live carefree and gone are the days where mental health struggles belong to someone else. Every single day involves self-care - mentally, physically, and spiritually. Every day, I check in with myself and do the work. I keep my head above the water, but I'd rather not contend with the challenges of managing anxiety, depression, and the suicidal thoughts that once plagued me.
While this post may seem rather dark and not my usual style of blog, I think it's important that we talk about and validate secondary losses. Sometimes just knowing that other people struggle with these things can bring a level of acceptance to our lives.
Acknowledging secondary losses and the pain they leave is the first step to managing them. Then make sure to build your tool box of coping skills and use them regularly. I do this daily. And make sure to reach out to other mothers who are on this path. Only they can truly appreciate what you are going through.
All of this takes time and buckets of patience. There is no replacement for the grieving process. It's something we have to figure out and live with. There's no short cut.
If you are struggling with the loss of a child, you might be interested in a resource I put together: The 3 things you need to know about Child Loss.
Walking beside you,