Who Burned My Roles? How Our Identity Changes After a Loss

Our roles in life define us.  Parent, spouse, student, employee, sibling, and offspring are some examples.  Our identity is shaped by these roles.

Before my husband’s death, my defining roles were mother, wife and caregiver.  With three young children and a terminally ill husband, these responsibilities took up the majority of my waking hours.  When Greg died, that changed dramatically.  In the aftermath of this loss, I naturally felt lost and confused.  Much of this was due to grieving his absence.  But, as time passed, I realized that I was also grieving the loss of my roles of wife and caregiver.  I was grieving the loss of my identity.

It may seem impossible to reinvent or rediscover ourselves at such a difficult time in our lives.  The mother and father who lose a child, the son or daughter who loses a parent, the sibling who loses a brother or sister — all of us face a drastic change in the relationships and functions that make up our identity.

At first we feel off-balance and unsure of the direction we should take.  There is a big hole in our being that needs to be filled.  Many people feel depressed and suffer a general lack of interest or lethargy.  This is natural and, if we don’t get stuck here, can allow us needed time for reflection before beginning the work of recovery.

I have experienced and observed other “action” responses to the hole in our identity caused by the loss of our important roles. These include over-working, over-parenting and substitution.

Throwing ourselves into our work is a very common response to this gap in our lives.  Letting our professional identity become all-encompassing is a panacea in our society to compensate for voids in our life. Work is often necessary, provides normalcy amidst upheaval, and gives us a sense of accomplishment.  However over-working prevents moving forward though grief and is not a satisfying long-term fix for the underlying loss of self.

If we are a parent, we may respond to our void by over-parenting.  This is common when we have lost a child or a spouse.  In my case, I lost my husband and became the sole parent of our three kids.  It was instinctive to try to be both mother and father to my children.  I exhausted myself trying to make sure their lives didn’t skip a beat. While it was important to give my grieving children extra time and attention, I was trying to fill the loss of my roles as wife and caregiver by over-parenting them.  It wasn’t beneficial to them.  They needed to face the reality that their lives were forever changed.  And I was neglecting my own emotional and psychological progress through my grief.

Substitution is a reaction that may eventually work into a viable solution. Or it can be quite destructive. Returning to graduate school enabled me to add the role of student.  A few years later, I found immense satisfaction in working with other bereaved children and adults.   In the aftermath of her son’s death, my sister volunteered to work with the teen group at her church.  One elderly man who lost his invalid wife began working at the local senior center’s lunch program.  Substituting new roles that bring a sense of self-satisfaction is a positive step forward.

On the negative side, marrying too soon after the death of a spouse is a form of substitution that can have disastrous results.  Using drugs and alcohol as substitutes are obvious destructive behaviors.

Though none of us would have chosen to have our roles “burned,” redefining ourselves and our identity are opportunities to become a better, more compassionate person.   With wisdom and care, positive personal growth can be achieved in the aftermath of pain and loss.

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Mary Zemites

More Articles Written by Mary

Mary Zemites faced the loss of her husband, Greg Jarczyk, in 1992. Left with three young children, ages 4 to 10, she immediately returned to school at Arizona State University to finish a Masters degree in 1993. She then went back to work while caring for her family. Two years after her husband's death, Mary's young nephew, Sammy, was lost to cancer. After suffering through and surviving her own loss, Mary was able to support her grieving sister in a way that others could not. This experience inspired her to begin a new journey of helping the bereaved. And for ten years, Mary has been a bereavement group facilitator at her church. Mary knows the pain of loss...but she also knows the value of support and friendship through that loss. As owner of InTimeOfSorrow.com she provides all of us with a way to reach out to those who are "walking through the valley of darkness" and help them ease back into the light of hope. Mary resides in Chandler, Arizona with her husband, Tom Zemites. She and Tom share five children and two granddaughters. Reach Mary through her website, http://www.intimeofsorrow.com, or by e-mail, maryz@intimeofsorrow.com.

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  • sherry says:

    Your artical inspired me to thik about my identity after my loss from divorce. I admire your courage and strength to move forward. I went through a four year dirty divorce. I was a stay at home mom for fifteen years. I have three boys,16,12 and 7. I didnt want the divorce even though my husband had multipal affairs and a baby with another woman.
    My whole idenity was about being a wife and mother all those years. I worshiped my husband and the more he abused me the harder I tried to be the perfect wife.
    I was in so much pain through the divorce, but slowley I became aware that there was a “me” in this. I started asking questions: What makes me happy. What do I want. Who am I.
    Healing was in process as I became aware of my self.
    I have a teaching degree that I let expire so i am getting it updated. I am a substitute teacher now.
    I am free to dicover who I am. I am alot of things but now most importantly I am my own friend.

  • Paul Bennett says:

    Mary,

    Thank you for this look at how loss robs us of our roles and our identity. You’ve shined a useful light on the activities that many of us take on after a loss — these activities don’t just fill up our empty days but actually create our sense of who we are. There’s an opportunity, looking at ourselves in this light, to see how much power we have over our own identity: we can choose to change our roles when they no longer serve us, and thus create a new vision for ourselves of who we are.

    The roles and identities that we take up right after a loss may be too confining for us in the long run. At first I was content to identify myself as a “widower,” the one who was uprooted by Bonnie’s death, but soon it seemed that there wasn’t room inside that identity for me to grow into the new life that was open to me.

    Thanks again for your thoughtful article.

    Paul Bennett
    http://www.lovinggrief.com

  • Pat Dunkin says:

    It has been five years since my husband Bill passed. I was very aware of the change in my status immediately. I was a care-giver for my husband for over ten yeares. Through those years he remained my best friend, my biggest cheerleader, my confident, my lover and my husband.
    I realized immediately I had not only lost my husband, I lost my job and my support system. Now I had to fill endless hours with something.
    At first I spent much of my time crying or in a stupor. And then there were belonging to sort through, closets to empty, Social Security and Veteran’s benefits to apply for, insurance to track down, and major life changing decisions to make at a time when I was incapable of deciding what to eat for supper or when to go to bed.
    There was Christmas and a New Year to get through.
    But who am I and what am I to do with my time and energy?
    That continues to unfold daily. I simply put one foot in front of the other and do what is mine to do.
    Eventually the sleepless nights passed and the tears didn’t flow so readily. I was able to continue with very satisfying part time work . I continue volunteer work in my community and church.
    So my identity has shifted from being care-giver to being a widow, to being a woman full of life who lives each day to the fullest. Most people who meet me today do not know I lost the love of my life or that I was a care-giver for all those years. They just see a person who is deeply spiritual and loves life.
    I will never stop missing Bill but I know that I am alive and my life is my responsibility. I am not what I do. I am simply me on my spiritual path.