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Child Loss, Grief & Secondary Loss after a Child Dies

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. 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.

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. 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.

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.

Walking beside you,

XO Lisa

PS: I have created a special 5-part video series just for grieving mothers that you can download for free. You can learn more about it HERE.

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1 Comment

Apr 08, 2023

Yes, secondary loss. For those of us with 'onlys', and who die as young adults, or even well into adulthood, there is that secondary loss. It amplifies loss, especially for those of us who had children later in our young adulthood. Losing them to suicide adds another layer to everything, even for those of us who are survivors of suicide and grateful for life. Those losses change the dynamic of marriage, often in subtle ways that catch you by surprise....drifting apart in shared interests, underlying anger and depression, a feeling of loss of purpose, and the difference between mother and father in how they process that loss and grieve.

The loss of the only child compounds itself when the…

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