Dear Dr. Neimeyer,
I lost my husband in an accident over 25 years ago while we were getting ready for his grandmother’s funeral. There were so many unanswered questions, as our daughter was only a year old and she is now nearing 30. But my question is why I still have my moments of tears and sadness. I can talk about it, and I will tear up as if it just happened. I still function, but I feel like I’m not where I ought to be in life. Can you help me understand?– Connie
As you have found, with the death of a loved one life changes in an instant, but the repercussions can be felt for an eternity. Even though many survivors of sudden loss continue to function, as you have, many also feel vulnerable to a welling up of grief for years or decades, when thoughts, conversations or circumstances call our loved one to mind. More seriously, just as you have described, we may also accommodate the loss with a long-term sense of resignation, accompanied by a kind of bleaching out of emotion and meaning, even if we continue to work and provide for our families. This state, sometimes termed “chronic sorrow,” can contribute to a sense of not quite fitting in with the broader social world, as we fluctuate between avoiding the painful recollection of the death and occasional rumination on it. The result is often a sense of surviving, but not genuinely thriving, in a world made poorer and more tragic by the trauma.
One key to understanding this is provided by my colleague, Therese Rando, who speaks of the “secondary losses” that surround the central and obvious one, of our loved one’s life. The other losses, implied but unrecognized by many, can haunt us for a lifetime, without the clarity or validation of the central loss itself, which is universally recognized through rituals of commemoration of the dead such as funerals and memorial services, and short term rituals of support for the survivors. In contrast, secondary losses can be nearly invisible, yet pervasive: the forever-empty chair at the family table, the gaze of photographs that yellow with time. More painful still than these continuous daily reminders of loss are the periodic vivid reminders that arise when a daughter’s graduation, wedding or birth of a grandchild goes unwitnessed by her father, or we anticipate a retirement alone. Finding words for these losses, and an audience with whom to share them, can therefore be a first step toward acknowledging them and finding a way to reinvest in life.
Finally, it can be helpful to recognize that the secondary losses that attend a traumatic death like that of your husband in an automobile accident in which you were present can also include the loss of basic world assumptions, such as the innocent belief that life is just, that the universe is safe, and that we have the ability to control events and protect those we love. All too often, these beliefs are lost along with the life of our loved one, and speaking with a counselor who is willing to join us in reviewing and revising our world view can begin to re-open doors long closed, allowing us to step more fully into an imperfect world that has not lost all its beauty.