When someone you love dies you’re not the same. You miss the person you lost, of course, but you also you miss the person you were. Loss of identity is one of the most significant secondary losses you’ll experience after a death.*
This happens because the person who died defined a part of who you are. You are your daughter’s mother, you are your father’s son, your wife made you a husband, your best friend made you a best friend. What happens to that part of your identity when they die? The loss of someone you love can leave you wondering, who am I without them?
Often people who have spent years acting as a caretaker to their sick loved-one have a hard time figuring out who they are when the ailing person dies. We are defined by how we spend our time and how we see our place in the world. This image often depends on how we see ourselves in relation to others.
The love of a partner can make you feel desired and confident. Parenting a child can give you a clear sense of purpose. Talking to your parent can evoke a feeling of security. So if that person is missing from your life, unfamiliar insecurities can arise in their absence, leaving you and maybe others, wondering where the confident, purposeful, or secure version of you went.
Insecurities can also arise if you suddenly realize that you can’t fulfill the roles your lost loved one left empty. If your sister was the one who always hosted Thanksgiving and after her death that task now falls to you, you may feel bad about yourself if you feel you can’t do it as well as she would have. Feelings like that come from thoughts that sound something like, “She would’ve done it better,” “Who’s going to want me now,” “I can’t be a father and a mother,” “I can’t do that.” These thoughts lead to feelings which can undermine you’re your general sense of self-worth.
This is how grief is so insidious; it digs deep inside of who you are. You don’t just lose them, a part of you goes with them. And the deeper you loved someone, the larger the missing piece inside of you will be. You’re then left to decide how you’re going to fill that void. How you fill it, will become the meaning you make of their death.
Your options for filling the void are endless. You can fill it with distraction, guilt, booze, blame, sex, resentment. Or you can fill it with creativity, volunteerism, family time, self-improvement, or supporting others. Probably a bit from both sides of the coin. I’m not here to tell you what’s going to work for you, but to just be aware that though you’re not in control of everything, you are in control of who you’re going to become in the wake of this loss. Just make sure that the person you’re becoming is a person you’ll like. If not, make adjustments and keep trying.
Thanks for visiting Grief Compass. We’re sorry you have to be here, but are glad we’ve found each other.
*We’re going to assume for this post’s sake that the lost relationship we’re talking about was a mostly positive one for you.