Who am I now? Loss of self during times of grief
Loss, unfortunately, affects us all at some point in our lives, and we will likely struggle to make sense of why this loss has happened and how we could make changes to how we are feeling.
When we experience a loss, our awareness is centred on the more tangible and visible part of our loss – a loved one has died, we have lost our job, our partner; maybe we have moved home and lost our network and connections. What we may not be aware of is what naturally coincides with loss, and that is the loss of our self; our identity.
Our self is who we are, how we define ourselves, what we stand for, and who we relate to. You could also refer to this as your identity. Loss can throw our identity into turmoil during times of grief, as we may lose someone we relate too, our status, our faith, or our purpose.
If a loved one has died, this can bring into question who we can now relate to in the world. That person is no longer physically here, and we do not have that person to share our self and our journey with. We no longer have that person to enhance our self, to bring their perspective to ours, to relate to. We may ask ourselves who we are, now we are no longer a daughter, a mother, or a husband. This new self can feel raw and vulnerable, and we may feel lonely, confused, isolated, and panicked without this person here.
If we lose our employment, we also lose our income and status, a contribution we are making to society, and possibly to our family. We may have built up an identity with a title such as ‘I am a teacher’ or ‘I am a doctor’, but what if we lose this? A job can provide us with routine and purpose; if this is stripped away, we are left to try and work out who we are now.
A sudden diagnosis can cast us into existential turmoil. Maybe we can’t do the things we have always done, the things we always planned to do. We may question why we took things for granted so much up to this point. Maybe we have been told we are not going to be on this earth for as long as we had hoped. Trying to comprehend and process this amongst shock and fear can feel insurmountable and numbing.
Often, when a loss occurs, we seek answers. Our spiritual identity can be affected in very different ways. We often hear of people entering a religious crisis as they cannot comprehend how such a loss could occur given the faith that they hold. A loss can lead to faith questioning, but it may also lead to an increase in faith and spirituality seeking, to try and make sense of what has happened and to try and take comfort and solace in the aftermath of a loss. Seeking out a religious or spiritual movement can also help to add to our identity when we are feeling unsure and vulnerable following a loss.
How do we reconstruct our sense of self and identity? Having a sense of self can enable us to feel more secure and safe in the world. On the gradual path through grief, a large part of acceptance is acknowledging that a return to your ‘old self’ is not the destination you will be moving towards. Your old self existed before the loss. Something has now changed; a significant change, a significant loss. This means that you have been, and still are, changing too.
This does not have to be frightening.
Who we are, what we stand for, and who we relate to is fluid and changes over time. A loss is a significant change, but with time, understanding, and patience, our sense of self reconfigures, and we can find a way to live with our loss and adapt to a different kind of life. Being kind and compassionate towards yourself during this time can help to alleviate any pressure or expectations you may be feeling. This is your personal grief journey and will be unique to you.
There is hope when living with loss. Time, acceptance, and patience can help us in finding our way on this new path.