We talk about the different causes of grief frequently, loss of a loved one, loss of a career, loss of expectation. These are all part of something bigger, loss of identity. When we lose a loved one we talk about losing a piece of ourselves, but often we don't really acknowledge that we have, truly, lost part of our own identity. The survivor changes from a spouse to a widow(er), a parent to someone having suffered child loss. a sibling to an only child or birth order being changed. Losing a career changes your identity equally, our work is so wrapped up in how we see ourselves and, unfairly, how much worth society attributes to us as people.
We are aware of the grief caused by the loss, but often we don't acknowledge the loss of identity that we suffer as a result. When we don't acknowledge and articulate the additional loss, we have a harder time recovering from the losses. A change in identity through loss is very different than when we change our identity by choice, going from single to married, not having children to a parent or even married to divorced. Usually these changes in identity have been contemplated over time and are welcome changes even if they may not be easy. When we have a sudden and dramatic shift in identity through loss though, it is not something you have control over and not something you would choose.
We are often so close to being aware of what we have lost in addition, but often fail to fully make the realization that we are suffering multiple losses. If you tell someone that your last living grandparent has passed we instinctively understand that this is more significant than an older family member dying. We don't, however, think about the loss of being a grandchild any longer, or that it makes your own parents generation the oldest living family members. Losing a grandparent is hard, particularly if you were close, but it is accepted as the natural order. We age and eventually die, making losing the most senior member of the family a lesser blow than losing a sibling or child. Once you have lost all the grandparents though, the loss of identity as being a grandchild is combined with the anxiety of looking at your own parents as the oldest generation.
Suffering through grief is messy and difficult but nearly impossible when you don't acknowledge the entire loss. When we don't acknowledge that we have lost more than a person or a career but who we think we are, we come completely unmoored. When our internal identity is altered it can feel like we are unable to find our footing in the new world we find ourselves.
Take the time to think about all the losses you are suffering. Grieve the person you were; spouse, grandchild, child, sibling, friend etc. in addition to the loss of the person. Acknowledge that you have a new title and that it takes some time to find how this new title fits you; widow, orphan, only child, etc. The label can be a painful wound and needs attention to heal the injury to your identity.
How has your own identity been changed by loss?
My name is Abby, my life has been touched many times by loss and grief. This life has led me to helping others navigate their own grief. I have become a INELDA trained End Of Life Doula and a hospice volunteer. I am not a professional counselor or psychologist and all advice given should be treated as advice from a friend.