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Secondary Grieving

Updated: Apr 1


Secondary Grieving woman with stroller looking at baseball field

This is one of a series on grief.  Be sure to check out the other posts:  Grief thru a natural causes Anticipatory Grieving, Complex Grieving (suicide, accidents–grouped because they’re harder get through), Ambiguous Grieving a loss when they are still alive–cutting someone out, Secondary Grieving.  The causes can be varied.  In this series we explore the different types of grief to broaden your understanding, and offer practical help for dark days.  


What is Secondary Grief?


Secondary grieving refers to the additional layer of mourning that individuals may encounter in response to a primary loss. In this context, "secondary" signifies losses that stem from the primary loss, not implying any reduction in impact or difficulty. These secondary losses may unfold gradually over time or become apparent in the immediate aftermath of the primary death or loss. They include such things as:  financial stability, dreams, home, loss of a business, relationships and identity.  They are a natural part of the grieving process, and acknowledging them is a crucial step in navigating the complex terrain of grief. Understanding the interconnectedness of primary and secondary losses sheds light on the intricate web of emotions that define the grieving experience.


Secondary grieving can occur immediately after a death, or it can occur as dominoes falling after other losses such as illness.  


Primary and Secondary Grief


Distinguishing between primary and secondary grief involves recognizing that primary grief encompasses the initial and direct emotional response, while secondary grief encompasses the multifaceted losses that ripple out from the primary loss. Secondary grief extends beyond the emotional realm, encapsulating various aspects of one's life. This can include the loss of financial security, a shift in identity, and the erosion of relationships that were intertwined. While primary grief centers on the immediate emotional impact, secondary grief broadens the scope to encompass the intricate threads that connect to the core loss, highlighting the interconnectedness of various life facets and the profound influence of the primary loss on one's overall well-being. Recognizing and addressing both primary and secondary grief is crucial for a comprehensive understanding of the complexities inherent in the grieving process.


This is sometimes why you may hear some say, “I feel that I’ve lost EVERYTHING.”  This person is experiencing primary and secondary loss.  Even if you may be able to see that they have not, in actuality “lost everything” it is best to reflect back to them that they do, in fact FEEL as though they have.


Common Triggers For Secondary Grieving


Common triggers of secondary grieving encompass a range of situations that amplify the complexities of the grieving process. One prevalent trigger involves the loss of a support system. When individuals lose a loved one, they often rely on their support network for emotional sustenance. However, if key members of this network, such as friends or family, are also affected by the primary loss or are unable to provide the needed support, it can result in a secondary loss of a crucial emotional anchor.


Witnessing a loved one's suffering is another trigger for secondary grief. The empathetic connection with the pain and challenges faced by someone close can lead to a profound emotional impact. This form of secondary grieving arises not from a direct personal loss but from the shared experience of witnessing the struggles of a loved one, adding layers of emotional complexity to the grieving process.


Experiencing multiple losses in a short period is yet another common trigger for secondary grief. The cumulative effect of navigating multiple losses intensifies the grief experience. Each loss compounds the emotional burden, making it challenging to process and reconcile with the evolving landscape of grief. Understanding these triggers is essential for individuals and their support networks to recognize the intricate layers of grief and provide empathetic support tailored to the unique challenges posed by secondary grieving.


Dual Realms of Grief


The impact on emotional well-being is substantial when confronting simultaneous grief. Juggling the intricate emotions associated with both primary and secondary losses can lead to heightened stress, anxiety, and a sense of emotional overwhelm. The grief process, already a delicate journey, becomes even more demanding as individuals navigate the interconnected nature of these experiences. Recognizing the complexity of simultaneous grief is crucial for both individuals experiencing it and those providing support.


Understanding the interconnected nature of grief experiences is vital in acknowledging the holistic impact of loss. Primary and secondary losses are not isolated events but interwoven threads in the fabric of grief. Recognizing this interconnectedness allows for a more compassionate and empathetic response from the individual experiencing grief and those offering support. It emphasizes the need for comprehensive care that addresses the multifaceted aspects of grief, recognizing that healing involves navigating the intricate dance between primary and secondary grief experiences.  It’s no wonder that the time needed to grieve is often longer than societal expectations!


A person close to me has a son who had heart surgery in infancy.  She described being at a baseball game for one of her older children, and experiencing a sudden, gripping feeling of overwhelm with knowing the child in the stroller would never have the opportunity to play baseball.  She said she would have fallen down if the stroller had not been there, it was so overpowering.  


Grief Often Comes at Unexpected Moments


For ideas on practical assistance for someone you care about please see the blog post on Ambiguous grieving on the section Support and Understanding.


Secondary Grieving describes the additional layers of mourning that individuals may encounter in response to a primary loss. This nuanced form of grief encompasses losses that stem from the primary loss, extending beyond the immediate emotional impact to include aspects such as financial stability, dreams, home, relationships, and identity. These secondary losses can unfold gradually or manifest immediately, creating a complex web of emotions that define the grieving experience. Distinguishing between primary and secondary grief is crucial for a comprehensive understanding of the complexities inherent in the grieving process.


The interconnection of primary and secondary losses sheds light on the intricate web of emotions that define the grieving experience. The simultaneous occurrence of both types of grief can lead to heightened stress, anxiety, and emotional overwhelm, emphasizing the need for comprehensive care that addresses the multifaceted aspects of grief. Recognizing the interconnected nature of grief experiences is vital for both individuals experiencing grief and those offering support. It allows for a more compassionate and empathetic response, acknowledging the holistic impact of loss and the intricate dance between primary and secondary grief experiences. This understanding redefines societal expectations around the time needed to grieve, acknowledging the enduring nature of the grieving process.


If you or someone you know is grieving and wants extra support, talk with a HOLD professional listener. We're here for you!


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