Who am I Now? Losing and Finding Yourself in Grief

When someone dies, we grieve not only for the person and who they were in our lives, but also for who we were before the death. People can be both surprised and disoriented by how the death changes them. No one tells us that the death of someone else can lead to grief over the loss of self. As a parent in one of our grief groups remarked, “I had no idea I’d change so much, I knew I would be devastated and miss my daughter, but I assumed I’d stay the same person I was before she died.” As Joan Didion writes in “The Year of Magical Thinking,” her memoir of the first year after her husband’s sudden death, “We are imperfect mortal beings, aware of that mortality even as we push it away, failed by our very complication, so wired that when we mourn our losses we also mourn, for better or for worse, ourselves. As we were. As we are no longer. As we will one day not be at all.”

Initially, many of the changes people experience are concrete and physical. This can look like not being able to eat, sleep, or think clearly. Some people might need constant company while others find it difficult to be around others. Over time, as the immediate physical effects fade, people in grief may start to see themselves differently. What they value, prioritize, and want in life may change, sometimes radically. For many children and teens, these internal shifts highlight feeling different than their peers. A teen grappling with the existential questions of loss and the reality of death can struggle to relate to friends whose complaints about the everyday drama of high school life now seem trivial.

Just as there are layers to any loss, there are different ways that loss changes those who are grieving. Immediately after a death, many people focus on the loss of the person, including their unique personality and contributions to their relationships. A daughter might miss the way her father made her laugh. A husband might miss his partner’s handmade birthday cards. Thinking about what we no longer have now that the person is gone can lead to an awareness of how we are different without them. This could be realizing that we don’t laugh in quite the same way with anyone else or that we sometimes dread the advent of our birthday. Another layer is missing who we were in general. In group this often sounds like, “I’m just not the same person I used to be. I miss being able to go to the movies without fearing a tearful meltdown.” Sometimes grief is future oriented as we anticipate what life will be like without the person. An additional layer is the ways in which the death affects how people self identify. In our groups, people of all ages wrestle with the question of “Am I still a sister/brother, wife/husband, parent?” For many, acknowledging these varied aspects of grief is a way to honor how significant the loss is in their lives.

Whether the changes you experience in grief are monumental and intense or subtle and more nuanced, know that you are not alone in these shifts. As you sort through what is different, it can be helpful sit with a series of questions: How do you see yourself now? How do you see the world? Which of these changes do you value? What strengths have you discovered? Where are the places in your life that you need additional support? What parts of yourself do you miss and want to re-cultivate? As you make your way through this self-inquiry, we’d love to hear what you discover.

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