We each have a general image of what widowhood looks like – before it happens to us. Maybe that image came from when your favorite grandmother lost her beloved husband of 47 years. Or from a girlfriend whose young husband didn’t come back from the war in the Middle East.
The loss of someone’s spouse starts with the shocking news. Then it moves to supporting the surviving spouse physically and emotionally as she juggles everything that has changed. Then comes the funeral or celebration of life.
For the community at large, the funeral serves as some sort of closure. There is empathy at the appropriate moments, but the widow is assumed to move on to “widow things,” supported by loved ones, family and friends. Life moves on for everybody. That’s the harsh scenario from the outside, possibly due to how uncomfortable our culture is with death.
But from the inside, it couldn’t be more different.
As the widow, you are consumed by the loss of the person, your “Person”, who touched every aspect of your life, leaving a void everywhere you turn, without respite. The intimacy partner, the co-parent, the sounding board, the co-conspirator, the best friend, the cheerleader, the lover, the financier and the handyman. Indeed, widowhood starts with what’s called the “primary loss” of the person who died.
But it is so much more complex, spiraling outward to trigger countless areas of “secondary loss” resulting from the primary loss. You will find yourself dealing with such losses in no particular order or frequency. They can appear immediately, much later, individually, in waves, consecutively, simultaneously or when you least expect them. (And some won’t appear at all.)
Exploring all these possible secondary losses could help you realize that to feel them is perfectly normal. So is your response to them – no matter what it is.
The endless range of secondary losses
For convenience, secondary losses can be grouped into a few categories.
The loss of what you have: The more obvious secondary losses are those we can see. There is often a loss of income, a job or maybe a business. Among the most disruptive is the loss of a home. In any case, these all typically represent a loss of financial security.
The loss of who you are: Whether these losses come from roles that vanished with the death of your loved one or from a shift in how you see yourself, they can be destabilizing as you try to define yourself going forward. You had been a wife and maybe a caretaker – and those roles helped define your life purpose. Without them, your self-confidence could be shaken. Who are you now?
The loss of what you believe: The loss of your loved one may also have torn up your carefully designed plans: your shared goals and dreams. Your hopes for the future will need redefining within your new context. And if your spouse’s death also shook your faith, it could mean losing the support of the spiritual community that shared that faith – at a time you need it the most.
The loss of faith in your fellow (wo)man: You never know who will step up at such a time of loss and who will disappoint. (And it’s often a surprise.) Good intentions may turn out to be misguided and hurtful. Relationships can unravel with friends, relatives, your spouse’s friends and family and the community who welcomed you as a married woman. Any change or distancing will feel like a loss, another void to be filled.
There are too many secondary losses to list here. But you will know them by the empty feeling in yet another part of your life.
Dealing with secondary losses
To deal with a secondary loss – in fact, with any loss – you first need to acknowledge its existence and its impact on your life. Because such losses come in so many shapes and sizes, virtually as curveballs when you least expect them, you may have to name each one to give it the attention it demands before you can mourn it.
Hopefully, coping with the grief of your primary loss will have shown you what works for you and what doesn’t. Then, when you are ready, you can try out the tools you have gathered until you find one that helps you explore the impact of the secondary loss. Of course, your process will not be like anyone else’s, but you may find strength in sharing with others in a group that aligns closely with you.
Your goal with each secondary loss that arises is to neutralize it by consciously taking away its power over you. Find the thoughts and actions that reinforce a new version of that aspect of your life. Understand that, through this multi-layered grieving process, you will be rebuilding what has been torn down, loss by loss. It may sound impossible, but it’s not.
If you are a widow supporter, rather than a widow, I hope this topic got you thinking about how you can support a widow in your life.
This article originally appeared in Old Colony Memorial.