Note: client names have been changed for reasons of privacy.

The sudden and intense yearning took Harold by surprise. He had assumed that the period after the one-year anniversary of his wife’s death from brain cancer would mark a new beginning – a second year of “quiet remembrance” after a “long, hard stretch of feeling lost.” But that is not what happened.

“The past year didn’t seem real,” Harold said. “Mary was gone somewhere – I’m not sure where that somewhere was, but it felt like she’d come back. Now it feels like she won’t – I mean really feels like it. And all I can think about is how I’d like to hear her voice again. See her in her summer dresses – you know she had great style – everybody said so. Maybe have dinner with her on the back patio. Now it really feels like that will never happen again.”

Kay was confused. The day after the one-year anniversary of her husband’s death she awoke crying with the thought “I can’t do this by myself” stuck in her head – but why? The day before everything had gone so smoothly. Kay and her two young children had celebrated Kenny’s life by fulfilling a plan of doing “family favorites”: a bike ride through the park; telling Dad stories; an afternoon trip to Dairy Queen; looking at family photos; and eating a BBQ dinner at a local restaurant. Today was supposed to be the turning point for moving forward – so why then did Kay feel like she had just taken a giant step backward in her grief?

A few weeks after the one-year anniversary of her older-sister Terry’s death date, Meredith drove with her husband from Wisconsin to north-west Iowa for a family reunion. After a year of nagging health issues following Terry’s death- issues her doctor had called “grief-related” – Meredith felt as if she were finally coming out of “a black hole of grief” and was now ready to “return to the land of the living” and living is what the family reunion was all about. 

“I don’t know what happened but the closer we got to home, the more I felt like jumping out of my skin,” Meredith said. “Something came over me – I started crying and yelling. My husband had to pull over to the side of the road – I mean I was really losing it. The black hole came back and I fell right in. I didn’t even see it coming.”

Upon reflection, Meredith felt she had been overtaken by grief and by fear about attending the family reunion without her older sister who had always acted as a “social security blanket,” a buffer against feeling awkward and tongue-tied at large family gatherings. Terry always knew what to say, how to put people at ease, and now Meredith was left to fend for herself against “people who don’t know me like Terry did. I wanted my older sister back. The realness of her death just really hit me then. I didn’t think it would be like that.”   

Second-year Challenges and Second-year Losses

For most of us, the first year of grief is focused on adjusting to life and a world without the physical presence of our loved one in it. Even if a death was anticipated, once a loved one’s death has been memorialized, grappling with a sense of unreality and just figuring out how to survive each day can dominate how we feel and what we do. 

As the second year of grief begins to unfold, unreality can give way to reality. Harold expressed this shift in perception as, "Now it feels like she won’t {come back} – I mean really feels like it." While Kay was filled with a sudden fear about shouldering the responsibilities of parenthood alone – something she had already been doing for over a year, and Meredith was overtaken by a sense of “realness.” This shift can usher in a time of renewed or deepening grief as we reframe a future without the physical presence - but with the continuing emotional presence - of our loved one in it. Adapting to this new reality and the permanence of loss, and coming to terms with any secondary losses we have, now becomes the focus of our grief journey. 

Secondary losses are losses resulting from the death of a loved one. Such losses can be apparent in the immediate aftermath of loss but more often than not unfold overtime, becoming especially pronounced in the second year of grief.  Specific to the individual nature of our loss, secondary losses can include:

Loss of security. Security can signify different things to different people For Kay it meant both the loss of financial security and the fallback security of a co-parenting partner. An initial consultation with a financial advisor directed Kay toward returning to school for a two-year degree to ensure greater financial security; for parenting advice Kay turned to a faith-based support group for women with young children who had lost a life partner.

To Meredith, her sister’s death connoted a loss of “social security” or a feeling of belonging in social situations. In a sense, the death of a loved one always has an aspect of security loss, either concrete (for example, a home, finances, family structure) or perceived (identity, purpose, etc.) because it is our social connections – our connection to loved ones and the structure that connection provides - that more than anything signify for us place and purpose in our corner of the world. Grieving security losses and re-establishing a sense of belonging can help us move forward with grief in the second year of our loss.

Loss of identity and purpose. Our close relationships can give us a sense of identity: husband, wife, father, mother, sister, brother, daughter, son. And purpose: caregiver/provider, trusted confidant, friend, role model/mentor. When a loved one dies it can feel as if “we’ve lost our most important job” and who we are, as Harold once said. Understanding that losing one identity can open the door to creatively rethinking who we are and where we want to put our energy from this point forward can be helpful in dealing with identity and purpose-related losses.  

Loss of a dreamed of or anticipated future. Some parents dream of someday being grandparents; when a child dies that dream is shattered. Spouses may look forward to a retirement of travel, slowing down and greater togetherness; when a spouse dies that dream dies, too. Siblings count on sharing “remember when” growing-up stories at family gatherings; when a brother or sister dies part of that shared childhood is lost. 

Our dreams for the future have to be recalibrated after the loss of a loved one. This hard realization can be made even harder by feelings of fear and guilt that often arise in the second year as we begin to imagine a future life without our loved one in it.  Social support is imperative at this time in helping to navigate difficult feelings, as well as issues related to losses of identity, purpose, and security. In the second year of grief, it is common for our support systems to dwindle as people go back to their own lives, sure that we are getting over and moving on. If that is the case, now might be the time to seek professional individual or group grief support. 

A Word About Second-year Pandemic Losses
Both Harold and Kay lost their spouses during the pandemic. As for many people, navigating loss during the pandemic was made more difficult due to the fact that they were unable to hold a memorial service or life celebration following the death of their loved ones. Both Harold and Kay feel that the inability to grieve in community contributed to increased feelings of loss and unreality about the death of their spouses.

Harold and Kay are both currently in the midst of planning life celebration/memorial services this summer for their spouses.