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.