Losing a loved one can feel like losing a part of yourself. It’s not just the grief and emotional pain that make it difficult, but also the feeling of losing your sense of self. In Season 1 of the Death Dhamma Podcast, Dr. Seth Zuihō Segall describes grief as a kind of protest or non-acceptance of loss. Someone whom you cherished or who was inextricably bound up with your well-being is gone. And part of that loss can be an understanding of who you are in this world. Or at least, who you think you are in this world. You built a self that was based on your relationship with another—spouse, partner, friend, or sibling. When a loved one passes away, you are confronted with the fact that the role you played in their life no longer exists.
It is not wrong or bad that you have a sense of self. You need a sense of self for all of the practical aspects of your life. Your sense of self helps you to navigate the world you live in.Your sense of self helps you to understand who you are, what you believe in, and your place in the world. This sense of self is shaped by your experiences, relationships, and interactions with others. When you lose someone, you love, this sense of self is impacted in profound ways, making the loss even more painful.
While my husband and I journeyed through his terminal illness together, he insisted that I stay as professionally active as possible. This was a wise move on his part. After he died, I recall being confronted with my own attachments. I missed him, I missed our life together, I missed the future I thought we would have, and, in some ways, I did not know who I was. It was tremendously helpful that my entire life had not been about being his caretaker. There was at least a part of myself that retained some continuity. I still grappled with who I was and what my life would be. I needed to think of myself in a different way. I was encountering the impermanence of self.
One reason why having a strong sense of self makes the loss of a loved one more painful is that it creates a strong attachment to that person. When you love someone, you invest a lot of yourself in that relationship. You form a deep emotional connection with that person, which becomes a part of your sense of self. When that person is no longer there, you feel like a part of yourself is missing, leaving you feeling lost and adrift.
Part of that experience of loss comes from the change in a role that you filled. You were a spouse, or partner, or friend, or sibling. In some ways, this role will continue to exist. The death of your loved one does not mean that you were not a spouse, or partner, or friend, or sibling. You were. Now you are something different. When your loved one was alive, some part of your role was in context to that person, to that relationship. The context has changed.
Letting go of who you are in relation to a deceased loved one is a difficult but necessary process. It is also an opportunity to rediscover yourself. You can use this time to reflect on your values, interests, and goals without the influence of the person you have lost. This shift in perspective can be transformative and can help you grow and evolve as an individual. You might find yourself participating in activities that are new. Perhaps seeing movies that pique your interest and eating food that did not agree with both of you.
I did not throw away my complete sense of self and you won’t either. A strong sense of self can also be a source of strength during times of loss. Leaning on my professional self was helpful. It gave me something familiar, something that felt stable when the grief was intense. Your sense of self can help you remember the person you lost and the memories that you shared. It can also give you the strength to move forward and find meaning in your life. Remember that your sense of self is dynamic and adaptable, and you can find new ways to rebuild and move forward after a loss.
You do not need to completely reinvent yourself. You will draw on your old self to develop a new sense of self. The more that you try to stay in your old role of spouse, or friend, or sibling, the more you will suffer. Still, you have knowledge, expertise, values, and interests. Let these guide you as you build your new life. Let these contribute to that practical and necessary sense of self. The one that will help you navigate your new life. The one that will help you as you lovingly remember your loved one, and bravely continue on with your life.