Losing a loved one can feel like losing a part of yourself. It's not just grief and emotional pain that make things difficult, but also the feeling of losing a sense of self. In Death Dhamma Podcast Season 1, Dr. Seth Zuihō Segall describes grief as a kind of protest or non-acceptance of loss. Someone you cherished or who was inextricably linked to 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 have built a self based on your relationship with another – spouse, partner, friend or sibling. When a loved one dies, you are faced with the fact that the role you played in their life no longer exists.
It's not wrong or bad that you have a sense of yourself. You need a sense of self for all practical aspects of your life. Your sense of self helps you navigate the world you live in. Your sense of self helps you 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, that sense of self is deeply affected, making the loss even more painful.
As my husband and I went through his terminal illness together, he insisted that I remain as professionally active as possible. It was a wise decision on his part. After his death, I remember being confronted with my own attachments. I missed him, I missed our life together, the future I thought we would have, and somehow I didn't know who I was. It was extremely helpful that my whole life hadn't been spent being his caretaker. There was at least a part of me that retained some continuity. I always wondered who I was and what my life would be like. I needed to think of myself in a different way. I encountered the impermanence of the self.
One of the reasons why having high self-esteem 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 bond with that person, which becomes 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 this experience of loss comes from changing the role you have taken. You were a spouse, partner, friend or sibling. In some respects, this role will continue to exist. The death of a loved one does not mean that you were not a spouse, partner, friend or sibling. You were. Now you are something different. When your loved one was alive, part of your role was tied 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 lost. This shift in perspective can be transformative and can help you grow and evolve as an individual. You may find yourself participating in activities that are new. Maybe seeing movies that pique your interest and eating foods that aren't right for you either.
I haven't thrown away my whole sense of myself and neither will you. A strong sense of self can also be a source of strength during times of loss. Relying on my professional self has served me well. It gave me something familiar, something that felt stable when the grief was intense. Your self-esteem can help you remember the person you lost and the memories you shared. It can also give you the strength to move on and find meaning in your life. Remember that your self-esteem is dynamic and adaptable, and you can find new ways to rebuild and move forward after a loss.
You don't have to completely reinvent yourself. You will tap into your old self to develop a new sense of yourself. The more you try to stay in your old role as spouse, friend or brother, the more you will suffer. Yet you have knowledge, expertise, values and interests. Let them guide you in building your new life. Let them contribute to that practical and necessary sense of self. One that will help you navigate your new life. The one who will help you to lovingly remember your loved one and courageously move on with your life.