Death Creates Secondary Losses

by Harriet Hodgson

Death creates many secondary losses. Some are major, some are minor, and some are just annoying. After four family members died within nine months I coped with dozens of secondary losses. I was in such shock at the time, however, I did not realize how powerful these losses could be.

According to Bob Deits, author of “Life After Loss,” secondary losses are really a series of losses. These losses hit and hurt the core of your being, Deits says, and “how you measure your happiness and value your life.” Well, I can honestly say I didn’t have much of a life after being overwhelmed with secondary losses.

As I look back at the “year of death” I am able to see my secondary losses more clearly. My husband has shared these losses and they continue to alter how we feel and what we do. Therese A. Rando, PhD, in her book, “How to Go on Mourning When Someone You Love Dies,” thinks mourners need to deal with secondary losses gradually. “Don’t overwhelm yourself by attempting to deal with these secondary losses all at once,” she warns.

But life doesn’t always give you a choice. After our daughter died their father moved in with the twins. Nine months later he died. His death made our twin grandchildren orphans and left us with an extra house, a house we could not afford. The court appointed us as the twins’ legal guardians and they live with us now. Leaving their home has been heart-wrenching for the twins. Clearing out our daughter’s home has been heart-wrenching for us — the worst secondary loss. The question is, why?

1. More responsibility. Our grandchildren have lived with us for a year and we have become a family. Still, it has been hard to mourn four loved ones and stay upbeat for teenagers. When we tire my husband and I remember our goals: care for the twins, protect them, and love them more each day.

2. Bad timing. Christmas was approaching when my former son-in-law died. Though it was only mid-November, my granddaughter decorated the house for Christmas. When my husband and I walked into the silent house we saw a Christmas tree at the front entry, another Christmas tree in the family room, and holiday decorations everywhere. The sight made us sob.

3. Scope of the task. Clearing out a house that was packed to the ceiling was a daunting task. We were dismayed we realized the garage was also crammed with stuff. Where should we start? How long would it take? We divided this huge job into smaller ones.

4. Sequencing. It seemed logical to start with the main floor. We packed items in commercial moving boxes and labeled the boxes according to contents and room. Though my husband and I are experienced movers, we could only work for a half hour before we were overcome with tears. Our grief was so overwhelming that we postponed the garage job.

5. Unfinished projects. Our daughter was in the process of finishing the lower level. This work had to be completed before the house could be listed with a realtor, so we hired a contractor. In addition to comping with grief, we coped with construction of a large media room, extra bedroom, extra bathroom, and office.

6. Distribution. What should we do with all the stuff? The construction supervisor thought we might want to donate items to flood relief. Southeastern Minnesota had been devastated by floods the previous summer and many displaced residents were still in need. This suggestion was our salvation and we donated the contents of our daughter’s home to Rushford flood relief.

7. Expenses. Clearing out our daughter’s house took more than a year. We paid off her home loan to save money on interest. Unfortunately, we put the house up for sale just as the housing market was tanking. It has not sold yet and we have incurred many additional expenses: lawn mowing service, snow plowing service, utility bills, and home owner’s insurance.

8. Checking property. The insurance company agreed to extend the existing policy only if we checked the house regularly. Though we have kept this promise, it is extremely painful. Two years have passed since our daughter died. Seeing her empty home — a home that had been filled with love and happiness — causes our grief to return.

Figuring out which secondary loss is the worst has been helpful. Now we have a better understanding of secondary losses of multiple losses. If you have suffered multiple losses I hope you will identify your secondary losses, your worst loss, and the reasons behind it. Work on this loss and reconciling your grief. A new life is waiting for you.

Copyright 2009 by Harriet Hodgson

Harriet Hodgson has been an independent journalist for 30 years. She is a member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors, the Association of Health Care Journalists, and the Association for Death Education and Counseling. Her 24th book, “Smiling Through Your Tears: Anticipating Grief,” written with Lois Krahn, MD, is available from Amazon. Web site: http://www.harrietthodgson.com

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