Conversations in Grief Blog: Loss of Self

Rainbow Community Care Team
October 23, 2023 / 5 mins read

Loss of Self

by Laura Wessels


When your loved one dies, you lose much more than the person. You also may discover that you have lost yourself.

While my own parents lived apart for five years, my mom’s daily routine found her visiting my dad at his care facility. Following his death, we (my siblings and I) began to realize how much those visits grounded and stabilized my mom. She was Harold’s wife. His presence there and his need for her presence gave her purpose and confidence.

A daughter who lost her dad when she was a senior in high school reflected on who her dad was to her. “He was my biggest fan.” The one who believed in her, celebrated her every accomplishment, knew she was gifted and destined for greatness.

A bereaved husband shared what his wife believed about him. “She thought I was brilliant.” How did he experience her regard? She listened carefully when he spoke. She relied on his perspective. She followed his advice. She bragged about him to others, telling anyone who would listen about his wisdom, creativity, and thoughtfulness.

Aren’t we all aware of our own self-doubt? Some of us are better at hiding the questions about our own worth and desirability. But we wonder if we’re going to be found out as not that needed, not that gifted, not that brilliant. This is one role of the people in our lives, the ones who know us and love us. They think we’re amazing, and they tell us so. Over and over again. My dad needed my mom to show up every day. Her presence was the light and hope that kept him going. The daughter was the apple of her father’s eye, and he made her feel cherished and capable of anything. The husband was the king of his wife’s heart. She thought she was the luckiest woman in the world.

They are so secure in their identity as someone who is known and loved. What happens to my mom, the daughter, and the husband after the death of their loved one?

Right. Their sense of self vanquished along with the death. Self-esteem. Confidence. Purpose. All gone.

With the death of your loved one, your own sense of self has also taken a hit.

No one else is going to think that you’re brilliant. But I offer a few insights- as you care for yourself in your grief. First, do just that. Care for yourself. Your self-talk can be critical and condemning. Give yourself grace as you navigate this strange, empty world that is dark without the bright star of your person. You get to make mistakes. You get to be sad. You get to be a “hot mess.” That’s how a wife recently described herself to me.

Second, celebrate your accomplishments when you do something courageous, like showing up for a grief support group for the first time. Or volunteer at a thrift store, or an animal shelter, or a hospice visiting people and finding a new purpose. Or graduate from college. I watched a bereaved wife pat herself on the back after sharing with our grief group something hard that she accomplished on her own. Way to go for carrying on and taking on challenges! You deserve to celebrate all the ways you are carrying on, in big ways and in very small ways.

Finally, a stone ritual we offer to the bereaved is to write traits of their loved ones on stones, a word or a phrase that truly captures who they were. We then invite them to carry that stone with them and develop the trait they loved so well in their person in their own life. If she was compassionate, to be compassionate. If he practiced generosity, to carry on being generous in their life. It’s a way to honor and live into their memory.

I want to flip that stone ritual as you grieve for our loss of self as well as your person. Just like you wear a piece of jewelry night and day with care and love, wear what your loved one believed about you around your neck and in your heart. You are a loving person who cares for others. You can do anything you set your mind to. You’re brilliant. Let their words of affirmation ring in your ears and in your heart. Live with your grief and live believing what your person believed about you.