Your gain: Understand the complexities of coping with feeling a loss of identity after you’ve been through a loss, and how this affects the grieving process.
“Dog mom” or “dog dad”
… the list goes on.
How Do You “Identity”?
What identity do you feel has changed since you’ve suffered your loss? Has it evolved? Do you still identify as whatever your “title” is? Perhaps not sure yet and trying to figure it out? Figure out what this new shift in your reality actually means for you now?
When we suffer a loss, we’re left to wonder… where does this leave us? What now? For many, they find themselves asking if they deserve these titles still. Well, in my opinion, let me tell you I feel that’s a resounding YES. We’ve “earned” these identities and titles, you know? Have things shifted? Sure. And on that note, I want to talk about two varieties of identity loss or an identity shift.
A New Identity With Someone Still Living
A perfect example of this might be a divorce. First of all, I want to say this needs and should be acknowledged and grieved just like any other kind of loss. It’s painful, of course, and it’s especially confusing because as the partner is still living. It’s a complicated level of grief because you might still have to be around them—especially if children are involved. Perhaps you’ll have to witness them move on, possibly find a new partner in life, have that partner meet children, if that applies.
So where does that leave someone going through this?
This is a little more complex than the other variant of grief we’ll go over next when there’s a death. If you’re no longer a “wife” or “husband” legally, and then one or more person begins to move on with some time (or even if they don’t, honestly)… that can be hard to grapple with. Add a marriage of decades into the picture, for example, and you’re left unraveling a near-lifetime of partnership. Memories, likely some combined finances and a home of some kind—if not ownership or renting together then at least moving away from each other.
I haven’t been through a divorce myself, but I’ve sure been through some break ups—one of which was a broken engagement. That’s definitely a topic for another post, but let me tell you… it was an adjustment, and that’s an understatement.
A Lifestyle Change
Breaking that news to our families and friends (who uncoupling can also affect), moving out and away from each other as I mentioned, and in my case at least… zero contact ever again. Seriously. I haven’t spoken to my ex since we said goodbye to each other at our apartment all those years ago. Not a word. I was the one to end things so it’s certainly not that I blame him, and I wouldn’t really have a reason to reach out either. It’s a little strange, thinking about what running into him would be like now.
Kind of awkward, perhaps. He would almost feel like a stranger to me, really. Though we left on pretty decent terms considering, it was still a void. It was still something I had to get used to… not being with him every day after five years together. Have you ever been through something like this?
Even if you’re not really mourning or even that upset to be away from the person, there’s still a sense of needing to find a new identity. A new “norm”. Maybe hobbies to take up to fill time you would have spent with them. Dinners to cook on your own now instead of with. You may even have to let go of a friend or two that were “mutual”, but ultimately can’t be friends with both of you for whatever reason. It’s sad, at times, but I hear it happen all the time.
There’s this (sometimes abrupt) new change in lifestyle that takes a lot of getting used to, even if the person is still alive and well.
A New Identity After a Death
But what if the person has died? If you’ve lost a loved one, which is likely why you’ve found your way to my blog in the first place, this might be you right now.
As an example, having lost both of my parents, I’ve been called an “orphan” by a few people. Which, I’ll be honest, I struggle with. I mean, yes, technically… I’m an orphan. I had parents, now I don’t have any. I might have an Annie with a Daddy Warbucks and Ms. Hannigan complex, but it’s never really sat well with me. It makes it sound like they abandoned me, which simply isn’t true. They never, ever would have if it was their choice. Period.
But how does that affect my “daughter-hood”, if you will? Well, let me be perfectly clear in that I will never, ever NOT consider myself a daughter. I was created and brought onto this earth by two people who loved each other dearly, who were—are, because I do believe they’re around me in a spiritual realm—my parents. That title can never be stripped away from me simply because they’re no longer here in the physical world. Now, you’re absolutely welcome to have an opposite view of that! No expectations to follow me on this one.
It’s just that, when someone dies, that leaves us in a weird place sometimes. An even more impactful and complicated set of problems arises when this person we were so deeply identified with leaves us from the physical world. It’s beyond just feeling lost or unsure of where we stand.
Are We Still What We “Were”?
Take a mother losing her only child, for example. One might then wonder, was I ever a mother? Am I still? Am I deserving of this title though I’m not one now? By the way, once again I feel this is a resounding “yes”. I’ve had a couple of people in my family lose a child (they only ever had one), and never once have I ever considered them not a parent, no matter how long or short it was.
If this is something you’re struggling with, please give yourself the permission to own this identity in whatever way feels right to you. Something like a “wife” or “husband” after a partner passes away might evolve if you eventually find another to love—perhaps not in the same way, just different but equally beautiful in its own right.
Where many tend to struggle longer term is the loss of a mother or father (for example) because you’ll never get another set. No matter how these parents were to you. Biological or not, or perhaps just some sweet souls that took you in that are family friends-turned-parent-like figures. All are meaningful, and all have a massive influence on the way we’re raised, what and how we learn, and so much more. They’re people we are tied SO tightly to and bonded so deeply with.
In the next section (I’m really excited about this one), I want to touch on how the brain processes our identities and memories with those we’ve lost.
Identity and The Brain
Our ability to imagine our future—this new and unknown space before us that no longer includes our loved one—uses a similar brain network as remembering our past. Memories are what happened when our brain replays neural activity that was generated during the original event.
This creates a perception of the event—a memory—with the knowledge that it’s being recalled in the present. Imagining the future is also a recombination of possible pieces of an “episode”, if you will, with the knowledge that they might happen in the future.
This means the brain relies on things you’ve already experienced and could experience again, and combines them in new ways. Pretty interesting, right? When neuroscientists do brain scans, when people are remembering their past and imagining their future, there’s significant overlap in the brain regions used for those two mental functions.
When people have difficulty remembering events in the past that happened to them, they also tend to have difficulty imagining the future and what they might do.
Harvard psychologists Don Robinaugh and Richard McNally tested bereaved people’s ability to recall personal memories. They found that those who have the most difficulty with grief also have difficulty remembering specific details about their own past, unless the memories include the deceased loved one.
Similarly, they have difficulty imagining details of future events, unless they imagine a counterfactual future in which they envision events as though the deceased were still alive.
Memory and Identity Go Hand-in-Hand
These psychologists also tested the working memory of participants in this study. This ability—being able to hold things in mind—is necessary for both remembering and imagining. People with complicated grief are more likely to remember specific events with the deceased. This is because when they’re asked if the deceased has been on their mind a lot, those are the memories that get reported. When asked to think of a time without their loved one who has died, it might take great effort to come up with any that didn’t include them.
The fewest specific memories without the deceased are regenerated by those with complicated grief and poorer working memory, presumably because coming up with memories that don’t include the deceased requires more effort for them.
Identity and Complicated Grief
But why would those with complicated grief have more memories with the deceased? And furthermore, why are future events more easily imagined with the deceased? One reason is that if we’re often ruminating about them, the ingredients that make up a memory are more likely to include them. Therefore, they’re more accessible when asked to report on a memory.
The other reason is that if our own identity overlaps with the loved one who has died, so just thinking about ourselves as a wife, or mother, then imagining ourselves in the past or the future is more likely to include the deceased person as well.
If the nature of ourselves and our identity implies that we have a husband, then imagining ourselves in the future automatically brings him in, too. It’s easy to see why we would feel as though a part of ourselves is missing after their death, right? Our identity literally integrates that title or that role into our self.
But if we have many aspects of our identity that are unrelated to the deceased, such as sister, supervisor, friend, artist, writer, then events that come to mind are just as likely to not include them.
We live this new, changed future each day, and our identity changes as we survive (and eventually thrive) following our loss. I think it’s important to ask, does our relationship to our deceased loved one change as well? Think about that for a moment. Whether or not you’ve been grieving your loved one for a very short time or maybe even years now, how has it changed so far and how can you foresee it changing?
And if you don’t have an answer to that yet, please don’t worry. It’s almost impossible to predict that, right? We might not know that until we get there. And even then, we might not be clear about it for years.
Where I’m trying to go with that is that the end of our loved ones life takes away the potential of our relationship. With my mom, for example, she won’t be here in the physical world to see me become a mother. We won’t get to experience that together and bond even more over that.
That is especially painful to me because I know how absolutely phenomenal of a grandmother she would have been. My dad, what I wouldn’t give for him to also meet his grandchildren and see me in that phase of life.
He was also someone I spoke to regularly about where I saw my life going, career changes, passions and things I was interested in. Not that I didn’t do that with my mom, not at all, but it’s those conversations I know we’ll never get to have that is really difficult to grapple with. They both weren’t here for our wedding either, for example.
That has already been something that was taken away in terms of potential memories we could have created together. With time (or truthfully, we’re perfectly capable of feeling this early on in my grief) we’re grief stricken over what could have been. But so often we realize, if not immediately with time, that we’re simply grateful for the things that our loved ones gave us.
A partner that provided you with laughter, fun trips, intimate moments and beautiful memories. A child where you had a bond that you simply can’t describe—no matter how long they were here for—and the love you felt for that human that came from within you.
Bringing you similarly indescribable joy and perhaps a little frustration, but nothing you would give up for a moment. As we age and as we move through our life without them, this dual process model of coping with bereavement continues to apply.
What I mean by that is while we might feel grief over their absence in this new part of our lives, we continue to adapt to their death. We continue to learn how to restore a meaningful life. Our relationship with them, present and past, was transformed when we can focus on all of the good they want for us. Despite any difficulties or frustrations we might have had in our relationship when they were here.
How We Understand Our Identity
Our understanding of ourselves changes as we gain wisdom through experiencing our relationships. With our living loved ones, we can grow more compassionate and fuller with gratitude as we age. We allow our interactions with our loved ones who are going to grow and change, even if only in our minds.
There’s this beautiful transformation of our relationship with them that can affect our capacity to live fully in the present. To create aspirations for a meaningful future. In a way, it can also help us feel more connected to them. More importantly, to the best parts of them.
We can learn to become a better daughter, son, partner, cousin, whatever this is. Our love for them is still there, we just have to find a different way to express it and find a different outlet for that love.
I want to leave this blog post on a high note with this beautiful quote from Mary-Frances O’Connor that says, “their absence from our physical world does not make our relationship with them any less valuable.”
So I ask you: how will you honor your loved one(s) today? How will you perhaps loosen the grip on this identity we’ve held on to so tightly and just… be. Acknowledging the relationship solely between you and the person—human to human—and that’s it? Not worrying so much about how we associate ourselves with them and being so tied to our identity versus finding joy and gratitude that their soul was—and continues to be—in our lives at all in ANY capacity.
Not that you need my permission, but (once again) I’m giving you permission here today in case you need it. I’m not saying you need to let go of any identity you associate with, not at all. The permission I’m giving you is to know it’s okay to let go of any guilt. To let go of the pressure of thinking so intensely on what our identity is now and what it means for us and what to do next. It’s okay to surrender and release it. It’s okay to NOT know! To be confused by it and not really know what you feel for a while.
You can be all of it or none of it. No one is putting that pressure on you to figure it out but you. And if they are for some ungodly reason… pay it no mind. All that’s important is how YOU feel. How you want to carry on that relationship and that title and identity, if that means something to you.
We don’t need to get as hung up on the titles and labels as we think. I promise, your loved one knows how special the invisible tether you share with them is now. No title will change that. That relationship with the deceased is between us and them, that’s it. You’re the one still living, so you get to decide. That’s a beautiful decision, no?
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