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.


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.

Desert Revelation

While walking in the desert this morning, I had a vision. Well, not a vision so much as a revelation.

I’d been thinking about my grieving woman novel, which is shaping up to be the story of a woman in search of herself. She is directionless after her loss, has a lot of unfinished business to take care of, and is trying to figure out who she is now that she is no longer a wife. I wondered if people would accept that this woman is finding out all sorts of things about herself that she didn’t know — after all, a person in her early fifties should have some idea of who she is.

Then I realized that even if we have a strong identity and know almost everything there is to know about ourselves, it’s still possible and perhaps necessary to revise our self-concept, especially after going through a trauma such as a major loss.

I saw that our psyches are like nesting dolls or boxes within boxes or doors within doors (choose your cliché). You never see the doors, so you think you know who you are, but a great emotional upheaval can cause a door to open, letting you see more of yourself and what you are capable of, revealing a part of your identity that might have been hidden from you until that moment.

You get to know who you now are, adding to or changing your idea of yourself, rethinking the past in light of this new awareness. You get comfortable with this revised self-concept and then BAM! More trauma, and another door. You never have to go through the door, of course, but if you do, you might find riches of which you were unaware.

What can I say? It was the desert. Wandering in the desert is traditionally a place for both sun-induced absurdities and great insights.

Sex Scenes: Self-Concept and Sex Concept

I just finished reading a book about how to get anyone to do anything, and the basic premise is that you figure out what a person’s self-concept is, and you play up to that. For example, if the person thinks of himself as a good father, you appeal to his father image: “If you help me, it will make a better world for your children.” If you go against a person’s self-concept, he will resist you and may end up disliking you. For example, asking the father to work on a night when he promised to be at his kid’s little league game is a sure way to lose his good will.

Since I have sex scenes on the brain — my last few posts focused on sex scenes — it occurred to me that one way to make a sex scene an important scene rather than just throwing it in because you felt it was time to add a sex scene, is to play on a character’s self-concept. What if a character were making love to a person other than a spouse? Would this lovemaking enhance his or her self-concept, or would it go against it? If the scene enhanced the character’s self-concept, we would learn more about the character. Perhaps she sees herself as a great lover, in which case nothing mattered except the lovemaking– not her marriage vows, not her husband, not her children — and so we know what kind of character she is. If the scene went against the character’s self-concept, then we have a character with inner conflicts. Perhaps the character sees herself as a faithful, till-death-do-us-part wife. In which case, no matter how exciting or tender the scene, it leaves her in turmoil.

I wonder if a character could have a sex concept that is the opposite of his self-concept — a great lover and a faithful spouse? In this case there would be no conflict if the character had an affair. Or would there?

I’m not sure what I’m trying to say—as usual, I am using this blog as a way of concentrating my thoughts. I guess the point I’m trying to make is that a sex scene is a good time to show a character confronting his essence. Without, of course, destroying the mood.

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Making a Character Come Alive

Even though I never planned to enter another writing contest, I did. It’s a local one, nothing major, but the concept intrigued me: the first 650 words of a novel. I could have submitted something I’d already started, but I liked the idea of baiting a hook without having to figure out what comes next.

To my surprise, that character in that hook really came alive for me, which is more than the hero in my work-in-progress has done. The character in the contest entry is a bumbler, an artist who barely knows the difference between a brush and a broom, and this disparity between reality and the character’s self-concept has made her real.

According to psychologist Prescott Lecky (1892-1941), people can only be true to themselves. Individuals will behave in a way that is consistent with their self-concept, even if this behavior is unrewarding to them or inconsistent with reality, and people will do anything to preserve this self-concept.

And that is why the hero of my work-in-progress is not coming alive to me: he is not alive to himself. He has no self-concept. A novel is filtered through the senses, emotions, and point of view of a major character. And it is filtered through the character’s concept of himself. For example, a character who sees himself as a loner will not, perhaps, accept a proffered helping hand when needed, where a character who sees himself as part of a community might feel entitled to that same help.

So how does my hero see himself? He identifies more with animals than humans, so he probably sees himself as a lone wolf who is self-sufficient and needs no one. This would fit with his need for freedom, his defining characteristic. It would also explain why, when he meets his mentor, he watches the man leave without any thought of accompanying him, and why, when he meets the crone, he doesn’t recognize the subconscious need for family she raises in him.

I haven’t yet read the finished chapters with this in mind, but there’s a chance I won’t need to make any revisions. It could be that this change — knowing the character’s self-concept — is merely for me, a new way of seeing him, a new way of making him come alive.

And now, because the character in the contest entry is also alive, I have two books that I’m not writing.