I Don’t Know Who I Am Anymore: grief and loss of identity

Identity is a funny thing.  The way we think of ourselves, how we define ourselves, the story we tell ourselves about who we are, all of that comes together to create our identity.  And yet we don’t always have a conscious awareness of our identity or even a loss of identity.  It often exists in the background, like the soundtrack of a film.  We aren’t consciously aware of it until something changes.  Seriously, have you ever watched familiar movie clips without the soundtrack?  It’s weird.

Okay, back to identity. When we experience a loss we are often focused on the tangible “things” we lose – the person, the house, the job, the relationship, etc.  That’s, of course, a huge part of grief.  But there is this other part of grief that we are often less aware of it.  It is the secondary losses that happen like dominoes falling, creating far more to cope with than just the primary loss.  We talk about these secondary losses a lot around here and often quickly list them off, throwing in “loss of identity” without saying much more.  Today we are going to change that because there is a lot to say and to think about when it comes to loss of identity in grief.  It shapes so much of how we exist in the world and research has shown that the lack of “self-clarity” that comes in grief as a result of loss of identity is correlated with higher rates of depression and post-traumatic stress.  We’re going to talk about different types of identity, how we can experience identity changes or losses, and what to do about it.  Spoiler alert: there are no easy answers.

Relational Identity

This is one that quickly comes to mind in grief.  It is the piece of my identity that is based on my relationship with another person.  So, perhaps I am a sister, a daughter, a wife, a friend, a mother, and on and on.  When we lose someone, we often feel we have lost this relational sense of self.  We find ourselves asking questions like, who am I if not a wife?

Relational identities change, even with the same person.  For instance, when someone becomes ill your role might shift from being a spouse or a child to a caregiver.  There are still components of your original role, but you may find that shifting as you take on more and more responsibilities as a caregiver.  When a person dies, caregivers often feel their sense of purpose is less clear.  When your relational identity becomes so defined by caring for another person, when that person is gone it can be hard to regain a sense of self.

Additionally, grief can ‘re-write your address book’. Friends shift, a distance may arise between friends or family of the person who died.  This can lead to another shift in relational identity, feeling a loss of community and connection to loved ones who are still living.

Professional identity

Phrases like “I am a teacher” or “I am a carpenter” or “I am a doctor” make clear that we often consider our profession as a huge part of who we are.   We have knowledge, skills, and expertise related to our jobs.  Much of our time is defined by our jobs.  We often have a community through our jobs.  When we retire, lose or leave a job, even if it is by choice, there is often a loss of our professional identity that can have a profound impact on our sense of self.  If I have been a teacher for 40 years, it is an adjustment to conceptualize who I am and what gives my days structure and purpose if I am no longer a teacher.  Sometimes a job loss is the primary loss, but sometimes it is a result of needing to leave the workforce to care for a sick loved one or to relocate after a death.  As you can imagine, this can result in multiple identity losses stacking up on one another.

Spiritual identity

Whether a Christian, a Muslim, an atheist, a Buddhist, or just someone who identifies as “spiritual” but not religious, we often have a spiritual identity that can grow, shift, shake, and disappear over a lifetime. This can be because of a death or just at different moments in life.  After a loss we hear many people describe everything from a crisis of faith to an increased sense of spirituality.   When it is the former, we often hear people describe a sense that they have lost something that felt fundamental to who they were and hence lost a bit of their footing.  Also with the sense of self as a spiritual person, there is often a sense of community that comes with a religious community that may also be lost, leaving people feeling both the loss their spiritual identity and distanced or isolated from their spiritual community.

Financial Identity

Though we often don’t think of finances as part of our identity, our ability to provide for ourselves and our family financially is often an important component of our sense of self.  Whether it is a constant state of financial struggle or pride in strong financial independence, we often have an expectation about what our financial identity is and should be.  Illnesses and deaths can have a deep impact on financial identity.  From overwhelming healthcare costs to leaving a job to become a caregiver, to a dual income household becoming single income, death can rattle our sense of financial security and independence and create a financial loss of identity.  On the other end of the spectrum, life insurance or inheritance after a death can improve financial security and, though this may sound like exclusively a good change to financial identity, for some people it leads to feelings of guilt after a death.

Physical Identity

Much like financial identity is often correlated with our ability to provide for ourselves and our families, physical identity often defines how we are capable of physically existing in the world.  In basic ways, like having the luxury to work any type of job, play with children, go for a walk or to the gym, and move free from pain, our physical self is fundamental to much our daily life.  For some, the physical is even more significant – people who identify as athletes or who use a lot of physical movement in their work are often even more deeply connected to their physical selves.  An illness, injury, and even aging can take a serious toll on the physical self, leading people a physical loss of identity that can sometimes be accompanied by a loss of self-worth. This is something we may struggle with ourselves or watch a loved one struggle with as an illness progresses.

Outlook

Though this can be harder to label, our outlook or perspective on the world can be deeply connected to our identity and it can also be shaken by a trauma or loss.  Whether it is the belief that the world is a fair and just place, a general optimistic perspective, being a ‘happy person, or a feeling that the world is predictable or safe, our lens through which we see the world has a deep impact on our identity.  A significant death or trauma can shake these assumptive beliefs about the world, leaving people sometimes feeling more negative, jaded, pessimistic, or unable to engage with other people or activities the way they used to.  This can result in an identity change or loss that feels difficult to reconcile.

Uhhhhh, okay . . . so I have definitely experienced a loss of identity. Now what?

We’ve thrown a ton of information about grief and loss of identity your way.  If you’re thinking “yes, this is me!” you may also be thinking “what do I do about it??”.   There is no easy answer, but the first thing to keep in mind is your identity will never be what it was before the loss.  Like so many things in grief, trying to go back to how things were before the loss just isn’t possible.  Part of regaining a sense of self after the loss is accepting that identity is going to be different than it was before.

From there it is important to remember that different doesn’t mean bad.  As human beings, we often don’t like change.  We have ideas about how life is supposed to look and who we are supposed to be.  When life doesn’t pan out that way, it can be easy to assume that no alternative will ever allow us to have a sense of well-being.  Though there will always be a deep sense of grief around the people and things in life that we lose, this does not mean there will not be other things that bring a sense of purpose, joy, and contentment and that will slowly become part of your identity.

Remember, you can bring the past into the present.  The person you lost, the person you were, those are all things that will still be a part of you as you go forward.  The myth of “letting go” has left many grievers feeling like the healthy way to grieve is to shut the door to the past.  As we have said time and time and time again, a continued connection to loved ones, as well as a continued connection to the person we used to be, can be a very healthy part of moving forward.

Finally, take some time to reflect on your identity.  Whether it is talking with a friend, a counselor, writing, art, or some other form of expression, consider how your identity has shifted.  Make an effort to focus not just on the losses, but also on gains.  This may be the new relationships that have formed, positive changes in perspective, new skills or growth that have come from changes in professional or physical identity, etc.  Though it is easy to focus on the loss of self, rebuilding self-identity can slowly come through an awareness of changes in the self.  This means bringing pieces along, acknowledging pieces that will never be the same, and establishing new pieces of the self that are built on things that came before.

Like I said, no easy answers.  But if you relate we would love to hear about your experience with loss of identity and any tips for coping.  Leave a comment!

January 30, 2018

21 responses on "I Don't Know Who I Am Anymore: grief and loss of identity"

  1. My brother had brain tumours and died when he was 43 but my grief was displaced because he had a wife and 3yo daughter who took all the attention. Three years later my dad died following a brain bleed in his sleep from which he never woke. My youngest son died suddenly and unintentionally 2 years ago aged 24yo, He had an 8mo daughter and he was an awesome dad. I was inconsolable of course but I still had to make sure my oldest son and daughter were okay. My granddaughter’s presence softened the ragged edges of my grief which also helped me maintain a connection with my son. Four months later my older sister died suddenly, leaving two young adult nephews without a mother and neither had any connection with their respective fathers, so while grieving my son I was thrown into emotional carer mode for my nephews. Ten months later my beloved sister in law became ill very quickly with cancer and died a week before her 60th birthday. Four months later her mother (my mother in law) died suddenly. I knew why – she was grieving her daughter. I actually felt happy that they were together again in heaven but I also felt a little jealous because they were all together, kicking up their heels and revelling in spiritual ecstasy that I believe exists when we cross over. My brother, father, son and sister gone, along with two more who I loved as much. That leaves just me and mum, but mum has dementia and doesn’t know anything about anything. I need her now but she’s not there and so I feel orphaned and alone for the first time in my life. It doesn’t help that I’m also the youngest in my family and my sister shouldered a lot of the responsibility where mum was concerned. My work is getting frustrated by my inability to deliver as I used to. I hate my job now and find absolutely no satisfaction in what I do, but I don’t know what else I want to do. I’m 56 so it’s not easy to start a new career and my interests don’t come with a wage. For the first time in my life I feel frightened and very much alone and this is harder to deal with it seems with than the losses themselves. I get angry with my family; why did they leave me? Yet I’m glad that my son is not alone and has family around him too. Finally the mother of my granddaughter has taken up a new relationship and has decided to cast us out and we are longer welcome around our granddaughter, yet after my son died they promised me she would always stay in my life. Another loss…..

  2. “perhaps I am a sister, a daughter, a wife, a friend, a mother”
    Husband, Father, Brother?

    • I notice that grief and loss articles on the internet are skewed towards women who have lost… in particular spouses or soulmates.
      Perhaps this is due to a misplaced impression in some that men should not suffer, or least keep quiet about it?

    • Let me specify that your article touches me very strongly. I am not denigrating your WYG. On the contrary I appreciate it enormously.

      Are the emotions of men Taboo in some way?

  3. Thank you for this excellent article! The comments are enlightening as well. I have lost a family a family member or friend at least once a year for the last ten years but it wasn’t until I lost my son 15 year old son 17 months ago that I got lost. I became an empty shell. A husk of a human. I just didn’t know how to describe it. I think this information will also help me understand what my husband and daughter are feeling. Thank you again.

  4. I appreciate this article but it is so broad. Let me explain; I think that how our identity changes after a loss depends so much on WHO you have lost. I deal mostly with parents of loss and parents and families of suicide loss. I started two FB pages to help others who had been through what I had gone though after our daughter died. When a child dies, it is an occurrence so out of the ordinary in the actual scheme of things that it changes everything, including our identity. We are supposed to die before our children, and when we bury a child, our identity and entire life change forever. If we are not a mother, who are we and what is our purpose? If we are the matriarch of our family and suddenly a grown child dies and our grandchild or grandchildren are no longer such a big part of our life, that sense of loss, shock and confusion is overwhelming. Half of our family is suddenly not around the Thanksgiving table and that hurts–it changes who we are. There is the aspect, as well, that we should have been able to save our child. We have always been the parent, the protector, and now we are nothing–it simply knocks the air out of us. Parents always feel horrendous guilt and responsibility when a child dies. When it’s a case of suicide, the guilt is overwhelming. We no longer see ourselves as the perfect family that we worked so hard to create. Again, we feel like a failure no longer the successful family leader, the very together mother who can do it all, but we see ourselves in a completely different light. It takes years to come to grips with the loss and maybe the diminishing of the guilt.
    As adults, if things go normally, we will lose our parents and we have always known this. Losing a parent is never easy, but it is expected. When an adult child loses that last beloved parent, we often feel a bit “orphaned,” I know that I felt exactly that way–but we have our own family and children to keep us going, and we move forward without a lasting feeling of having been orphaned.
    Then there is the loss of a spouse. You made a very good point when you stated in the article that many women feel that “If I’m no longer a wife, who am I?” I think this feeling of such deep loss, especially if your partner was the love of your life from a young age, I have known women who were so lost–partially because they really didn’t know who they were at all any longer. It doesn’t help that women are usually older, retired and the children are grown, so being a wife was that last big thing left in their life. How frightening! I actually think about it often; how would I handle it if after nearly 50 years, retired with children grown, who would I be at all and how well would I deal with that loss–or would my own life be simply over? Lots to think about.

  5. Death changes everything that one thinks they know of or about. There is no permanence of anything in life. I have realized the rational mind has no place in life’s journeys. But we hang on to rational thoughts to process all the unknowns to have a foundation of sanity to continue on. In my experience of deaths in my personal life, we are constantly balancing thoughts to move on in some direction, to do the daily chores of life. I do not think there is an answer to who we are, or what our identity means and our identity does not shield us from pain, grief or loss. Death leaves us naked to be vulnerable-and sometimes one gets to see a glimpse of oneself without all the exterior walls around us that define our identities. And in time we may get to create another impermanent identity.

  6. This was helpful to me in a different way because I’m experiencing a different kind of grief than that of losing someone through death. We adopted two children five years ago, and our son has attachment issues, developmental challenges, and explosive –sometimes violent–reactions to, well, just about everything. Parenting him has changed our lives. Changed who we are. We are grieving daily for the family life we thought we would have, incorporating seemingly endless therapy sessions, not being able to do family activities that we dreamed of doing, and juggling all of that with parenting his more typical younger half-sister–making sure she doesn’t miss opportunities because of everything we have to do for him. Anyway, we’re grieving. Grieving for a family life we dreamed of, grieving for the people we used to be, grieving over the ugliness in ourselves we’ve seen bubble to the surface in dealing with his issues. Very often I stop and think about how I no longer recognize myself. I’ve become this resentful, angry, exhausted, cynical person. Trying to rediscover the me that was joyful and light and creative and compassionate in the midst of the daily struggle. It feels like the grief will never end.

    • Melissa,
      Thanks for sharing your story – I came to this article as I am also trying to understand what has happened to me since becoming a mother with many unexpected life challenges. I identify with what you shared. I don’t want to miss out on these precious years with my children, yet I am constantly overwhelmed by the demands of parenting with an unhelpful world around me. I grieve….
      I will be praying for you and “walking” with you through this difficult, dark season. At least we are both hoping and searching for better.
      Julie

  7. I felt the biggest loss in identity, after my husband died, when I had to fill out my tax form the next year. We had no children so I couldn’t select Widowed with children but I didn’t consider myself single. I had to come to terms being a widow and now they wanted me to think it was synonymous with not having been married at all just because we didn’t have children. It still makes me sad and angry to think of it.
    Forms, not just tax forms, that ask for marital status should provide widow/widower as an option.

    • I feel exactly the same way you do – I am a widow. I was single when I was 21. My husband of 43 years passed away in Sept 2017.
      We did not have any children and now it is as if he never existed. Our joint bank accounts now are in my name only as well as the checks on the checking account. I am not a divorcee or a single person. I am a widow. I agree there should be additional categories when filing taxes and filling out a revised W4 form. It is difficult enough dealing with the loss of my soulmate and love of my life without having to stress over my new “status”.

  8. It seems this article has really struck home for so many of us coping with multiple losses that have shaken us to the core. Losing the folks in my life first my brother, my mother, our family pet all within a few months left me without the supports that I had relied on without even realizing that they were my rocks.
    Thanks for some guidance in trying to take baby steps to establish new relationships, beliefs and hanging in there until a new identity evolves.

  9. I identify with the other comments . My wife and I were married at age 19 and she passed away 44 years later in bed with me during the early morning. She had been ill, and I had talked to a hospice nurse the day before. What I missed for a few months later was that my wife was my life cheerleader even though during my path through life experiences I was not much more than a mediocre person as measured by my internal ruler. She always had kind words for me, she always felt I was an exceptional person, she would thank me for being in her life. During the dozen years when I was a caretaker, relatives would think I was such a wonderful supporting husband. It sounds selfish to me to say that some of my loss is to my ego where I would make the best of adversity and be someone’s hero. I have accepted that death damages you the same as if running your car into the ditch and you hit your head on the windshield pillar. The car may still run down the road, but it may not steer so straight, be wobbly at normal speeds, and you may not remember where you were headed. I gave up my career about a year before her death. So now I am lost in the wilderness. I took a trip to New Zealand, and the excitement of that helped, but at least once a day I would think about how I was allowed to do that because I didn’t have to take my wife to a doctor at least 3 days a week. So who am I? What am I supposed to do now? I have children and grandchildren that I care for and care for me. I went to one grief counselor’s meeting, but it was painful, and I never returned. I think the most important thing to have at this point is hope that you will have chances to have meaningful positive impact on others. That is what fills the hole in my soul. I want to be a hero again. It sounds selfish to think of what I may get from helping others. I did get a small life insurance amount and I didn’t want to have a damn thing to do with that money, so after I deducted what the funeral cost which wasn’t much, I gave some to the school where my grandchildren attend (my wife was a teacher), I bought pizzas for the staff at a health care facility that treated my wife, I gave some to the church, and then I split the difference between my two children. You can see how I identify with the article. Thanks

  10. Once again, a great article Litsa and Eleanor! Thank you for realistically and objectively discussing this aspect of grief and loss.
    Death changes so many things, and “identity” is a cornerstone or anchor of journey of grief that needs to be discussed.
    After death, it is common the survivor to be “left adrift” in the unrelenting dark storm of death. The anchor which once held them safe in there vessel, is now lost. Their boat broken loose, battered by the storms of loss, their lifeboat overturned and shattered by the storm of death. The unrelenting waves are tossing them to and fro without any sense of direction, purpose or many times, without hope. Their world has been capsized, their boat smashed to pieces, and many times, all thats left is a life preserver, if we are fortunate. Bits and pieces of a a life that was familiar and safe is now laying shattered around us. Sometimes we have life preserver, and there is a rope that someone grabs hold of, and we are pulled towards safety. Once safe aboard another boat, we are left shivering and lost, as we watch the pieces of our lives being swept away by the aftermath of the storm. We are numb and cold, suffering from “hypothermia”. It takes so much to figure out our new life on this new boat, its a whole new voyage heading in a different direction. One of the most difficult aspects to the new journey, is learning who we are, how do we fit, what direction do we go, or don’t go. What new dangers do we need to be aware of and avoid for survival. Who are the other passengers on this new voyage? Many times, they are others who have been through a similar storm and are looking for a port of safety and rest. A place where we can heal, recover, and rebuild. And our identity is one of the most important parts of recovering from the loss we have journeyed through. Who we are now, without reference to the one(s) who gave us reference, purpose, meaning, and direction. It is all new. Figuring out who we are is key to rebuilding our boat and setting sail again on the journey we call life.

    • Beautifully written!! Colleen, You have made me feel that I am not alone in this turbulent sea of grief.
      Thank you so much for letting me see for the first time, that what I am going through is normal.

  11. My experience is with the sudden death of our 20 year old son. He passed away in his sleep on Palm Sunday, March of 2016. He was so full of life the last evening we were together.
    He was going to college, working full time, and was making the arrangements to accomplish his goals. He was an Eagle Scout, a member of his high school state championship football team , and the picture of health. My baby boy…
    I came home that morning and found our son passed away. There is much more to share, however, there are sometimes no words sufficient to describe this and acknowledgement from others doesn’t often come. I just don’t understand…
    Your blog is a great read all around. It has been thought provoking and could benefit folks on both sides of the grid referred to as grief.
    -Thank you

  12. My mom was sick and stayed with us for treatments. Then she died. My father remarried almost immediately. (I am no longer a daughter) My husband got sick and I quit working to be his 24/7 caregiver. Then he died. (I am no longer a wife or a nurse – I can’t go back to that) My kids went off to college – one while he was still sick, the other right after he died. (I am no longer a mother). My church family treated me different when I was a widow so I no longer go there. (I have no church). I would love to say, like the last person to comment, that it has only been 18 months – but, for me, this floundering and not knowing who I am or what to do has been going on for 8 years this March.

    • That is a lot of loss for one person. Is there something/someone in your life right now that can be your anchor? That anchor can be the basis on which to build a new foundation. Your identity can be rebuilt, but it will look very different in this new phase. You can feel sad for all that you lost and happy to find yourself again. There is room for both. I wish you much love and happiness on your journey of discovery.

    • “Floundering” is a word I have used to describe my life path. Someone even mentioned an 18-month rule where for some reason at that point in time we who have had losses are somehow cured of the impact of the death. Really? I can’t wait to graduate from this life-changing event and get my DC –Degree in Confusion or hopefully Degree in Clarity. I am reminded of something I heard that gives me some comfort: “God gives his biggest battles to his strongest soldiers.” Maybe, we should be honored that we were chosen to help send home one of His children. I like to think so. I realize not everyone has the same religious beliefs as I do, but I think we were instrumental in helping them the same as doctors and nurses. Our medicine was just a little different.

  13. Grief is often associated exclusively with loss and this article does a fantastic job of laying out death a catalyst for change which results in grief – not the cause of the grief in and of itself. There are many causes for feeling grief. I think it helps to differentiate depression, which feels infinite, from grief, which is understood as temporary. This differentiation doesn’t solve anything but can at least help rationalize this state as impermanent and less grim. Great article. Thank you!

  14. This article certainly speaks to me. My Mom died after I had been her caregiver for 7 years. During that time my husband’s health begin to decline. Today I am struggling with who I am after my husband of 29 years died. He was ill for several years. I retired a year early to be with him. I became his caregiver as he became more and more ill and required more assistance. Our roles changed during that time. Now 18 months later I am floundering with who I am and what to do with myself.

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