Grief and the Loss of Identity

I don’t feel disempowered as a women, perhaps because I seldom define myself by gender, religion, nationality, age, or any other consideration. I am simply . . . a being in flux. I have felt powerless at times, but not because of being a woman. The powerlessness came from being in situations greater than my abilities to cope. Sometimes I developed the necessary abilities, such as when I decided to be a writer, other times I simply endured, such as when grief slammed into me after the death of my life mate/soul mate. Either way, I managed to move beyond the powerlessness and regain my equilibrium.

This is not the way things always were, of course. When I was very young, many limitations were imposed on me because I was “just a girl.” (How I hated those words!) Luckily, the early limitations were offset by my experiences at the all-girl high school I attended. In a school where everyone is female, there is no gender bias — all activities are done by and all offices, honors, and awards are won by young women.

warriorIt’s no wonder then, that when I fell in love, it was with an unbiased man. For thirty-four years, we lived in gender harmony. We played no roles, set no rules, followed no conventions. Never once in all those years did he tell me I couldn’t do something. Never once did I refuse to let him do something he wanted. Never once did he make me do a chore. Never once did I remind him of a task he promised to do. If one of us saw a job that needed to be done, we simply did it. Usually, though, we worked together. Some of my fondest memories are of us fixing meals together — he washing vegetables for a salad, me cutting them up. He reading seasonings off a recipe card, me tossing the herbs into the pot. (Or vice versa. What made it especially rewarding is that we’d created those recipes together.)

During the last few years of his life, I did many things by myself in preparation for the time when I would be alone. I took long solitary ambles, went on trips, learned to use a computer and the internet. This became our life — he dying, me struggling to live.

Somehow I thought this would always be our life, but then he died, and “our” life ended.

My grief was so profound I felt as if part of me had been amputated. The pain, the angst, the loneliness were unbearable, but the worst trauma was the sudden and shocking loss of my identity. Being with him had allowed me to be myself, to be comfortable with both my good points and my bad points. Since I wasn’t in thrall to him (though I did often follow his wishes because I didn’t care what we did or what we ate as long as we were together), it never occurred to me there would be a problem when once again I became single. But I’d grown so used to being with him, that nothing, not even something as simple as watching a movie, seemed important when I did it alone. He’d been the focus of my life for so many years that without him I felt lost, felt as if my life had no meaning. Felt silly for unknowingly letting my identity get so caught up in “us” that when he died, I no longer knew who I was.

The truth is that even for those of us who have a strong identity and know almost everything there is to know about ourselves, a trauma such as the loss of a soul mate shakes our self-concept. Our psyches are like nesting dolls or boxes within boxes or doors within doors (choose your cliché). We never see the doors, so we think we know who we are, but a great emotional upheaval can cause a door to open, letting us see more of ourselves and what we are capable of, revealing a part of our identity that might have been hidden from us until that moment. We get to know who we now are, adding to or changing our idea of ourselves, rethinking the past in light of this new awareness. We might even get comfortable with this revised self-concept until a new trauma opens another door.

And so it is with me. It’s been three and a half years since his death, and until a new trauma comes along, I again know who I am — a being in flux, still strong, still developing my abilities, still learning to empower myself as a person.

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Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Follow Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.