By Jo Christner, Psy.D.
Having a loved one die has so very many layers of grief and loss.
It’s so individual to you, who you are, how you think, what you believe, how and where you live, your network of support and so on. Grieving is a natural occurrence in our bodies and emotions. It’s also a complicated one that really requires that we give it our attention and allow it to heal. If you ignore it, it can sneak up on you when least expect it and feel like it knocks you down. “Why do I suddenly feel awful? What’s wrong with me.” The answer: nothing is wrong. It’s grief and all of its layers unfolding, whether you pay attention or not.
With all of the differences in our individual grief, there are also some similarities. One of the threads throughout the layers is the changing of identity, roles, responsibilities and sense of self. I’ve heard so many grievers say, “I don’t know who I am anymore. It’s all changed.” That’s a true statement. Yes, each type of loss (loss of a spouse, loss of a parent) has differences but one similarity is that you and your life are changed forever when a loved one dies.
You might hear some of the following answers from the grievers in our spousal loss support groups to the question, “Who Am I Now?” As in our groups, the answers are broken down into the number of months after a loved one dies.
0-4 months of grief
- I’m completely lost and confused.
- I don’t know who I am anymore.
- I’m nothing without my spouse.
- I am alone and fearful sometimes that I don’t know how to do this.
- I am not a widow. I don’t like that word.
4-8 months of grief
- I am overwhelmed with so many things that need to be done since my spouse died.
- I am feeling like a child to my children. They want to monitor everything that I do.
- I am dependent upon my children.
- I am so alone but I am open to meeting a few new people, especially in group.
- I am not who I was, and I know I never will be again. Sometimes, though, I start to feel like my old self, and then I get hit with another wave of grief.
8-13 months of grief
- I am a married woman and will be forever.
- I am accepting that I am single and am considering taking off my ring. It’s hard but I’m considering.
- I am braver than I thought I could be.
- I’m trying so hard to be positive. I don’t like being in my grief. It’s depressing.
13-18 months of grief
- I’m learning new things. I’m actually paying the bills and pumping my own gas now!
- I am single and learning to do things without my spouse.
- I am still lonely and miss my best friend.
- I’m still not sure who I am but I know that I’m not the same.
- I’m hopeful because I’m meeting new people.
- I enjoy some days now and not others.
18-24 months of grief
- I feel anxious but I know that I want to be with someone and enjoy life. I’m thinking of dating.
- I am enjoying my freedom. I can do what I want and I feel more empowered.
- I can’t believe it’s been almost two years. I didn’t think that I could do it but I’m finding more of my strength and getting through. I’m finding things about me that I never knew.
- I am aware that my grief is still here but has changed. I’m no longer frightened by it.
24 months and beyond of grief
- I’m hopeful that I’ll meet someone. I can love my spouse forever and still go forward with my new life.
- I am still in love with my spouse and that’s okay. I’ve met someone special and feel alive again.
- I am more accepting that this is my life now.
- I am still searching to find Me and my new Life.
Did you notice? There can be a shift of energy, thinking and feeling through the groups? Grief is still a part of your life even 20 years or more years from now. That’s because you loved and still love. If you do your grief work, there is a shift that happens in your grief. Grief does heal and Life comes back. It’s just different.
The You that you once knew… and the Life that you once knew has changed. Change occurs with each developmental stage of life. If you need proof, look at yourself in the mirror or watch your children and grandchildren. Nothing stays the same. Nothing is permanent, even grief. Changes occur as we experience loss of loved ones.
What do you do to find You… Now?
1. Be patient. Remember that it takes time to find the new changed you. I remember an old single cell cartoon back in the 60’s that said: “Be patient with me. God’s not finished yet.”
2. Be kind and self-compassionate. As Joseph Campbell once said, “We must let go of the life we have planned, so as to accept the one that is waiting for us.” That’s not easy and can take time, patience and self-compassion.
3. Work on accepting the belief that change is a part of life. You don’t have to like it but change is one of the only things in life that is guaranteed. It can bring hope and pleasant surprises, not just anxiety and fear.
4. Be open to exploring new activities, beliefs and experiences during the grieving process. In the beginning, this is difficult because you’re so deeply grieving. All you see is gray and confusion and yearning for your old life and your old familiar you. Again, be kind to yourself and give yourself the room to grieve. Joining a grief group is the beginning of the opening.
5. Remember that finding the “new you” is a lifelong journey. You have been doing it through your life… when you started school, started dating, went to college, got married, had a child, learned to cook, found your work/career passion, learned a craft or hobby and on and on. The search for self is not new. It’s just new now and seemingly so much harder because it’s not a choice when a loved one dies.
6. Know that you will not be the same you that existed prior to your spouse’s death. How could you be? That doesn’t mean that you will forget your loved one. They will always be a part of you, your memories and your heart. You are meant to keep living and finding you.
7. Work on changing your thoughts. As the quote below from Grief.com says, your thinking will change your answers over time as to “Who Am I Now?”
8. Remember that you are evolving and finding the new You and your new Life every step you take. Some days will be difficult and then eventually more days will feel better. Go slow, be patient and know: