There are many facets to our identity. Most people think of identity as being composed of the roles we assume in life, our heritage, our environment, our spiritual beliefs, etc. For example, I am a counselor, a college graduate, an American, a Texan, a rower, a cook, a husband, a brother, a son, a teacher, etc. These are all roles I have, each carrying with it certain behaviors and actions. Roles describe what
I am and what I do. However, if all of these roles were stripped away, who would remain? Who is at the core of my being? Who am I?
We humans strive to find answers to these questions through various means, a common one being through relationships. As part of our assumptive worlds, most of us believe that questions of meaning, loneliness, identity, and completeness are addressed through our association with others, and principally through a close, intimate relationship with someone we love. When we find that intimate relationship, we later discover that our two lives have mystically transformed into three: “you,” “me,” and “us.” (I want to point out that this relationship does not have to be the ideal “happy” union. It at least “satisfies,” if not “maximizes,” our assumptive world beliefs.) To varying degrees, the “we” determines important aspects of each of our lives.
After the death of a spouse/partner, the mystical existence of “you,” “me,” and “us” suddenly becomes just “me.” We actually have to endure two losses: the “you” and the “us.” The “me” now has to make it on his/her own, discovering and learning who he/she is. In extreme cases, the person is so used to thinking in terms of “we” that “me” has no idea what he/she really wants for him/herself, how to make important decisions by him/herself, or how to take responsibility for his/her life. The “you” and “us” are no longer there to take into consideration, to consult with, to acquiesce to, or even to blame. The change in thinking from “we” to “me,” and the creation of a new self-identity can sometimes be quite a challenge. For example, it is not unusual for me to have a newly bereaved person come in and say something like: “I was Joe’s wife, but now that he’s gone, I don’t know who I am anymore!” or “What would my wife think of me if I did that?” or “I don’t think I could take a vacation by myself; we always did it together.” And so forth. “Me” is struggling to find him/herself. Various factors affect how difficult that struggle is.
The first factor is how long the couple was together. For a couple just starting out, their newly forming “us” is filled with hopes, dreams, and expectations for the future. After the death of one of the spouses/partners, the other is left alone to re-formulate that picture of the future. A more seasoned couple, on the other hand, has had longer to grow together, to share inner worlds, and to complete and compliment each other. Over time, they have a more fully formed “us” in their relationship, an “us” full of past memories and experiences, with its set pattern on what is done and how to do it. Since “us” gets stronger over time, establishing a new self-identity after a long-term relationship can be more difficult than after a short-term one.
The second factor is how intertwined the couple has been. Some couples are so enmeshed that their worlds revolve around each other, and their sense of “you” and “us” is much greater than their sense of “me.” We sometimes think of these couples as being “very close.” Conversely, individuals within other couples may remain more independent. They maintain a much stronger sense of “me” than that of “you” or “us.” Most couples fall somewhere between the extremes. The bereaved who come from a “very close” relationship will probably have a harder time establishing their own identity than those from a “distant” relationship.
The third factor is the difference between the two individuals in the relationship. It is unusual for two people to have the same willingness to contribute to “us.” This imbalance means that one partner is more “you” and “us” oriented while the other is more “me” oriented. Put another way, we perceive one to be more dependent upon the relationship while the other is more independent of the relationship. In situations of extreme difference, we tend to label these individuals as being more committed or less committed. The more dependent a person is on the relationship, the more likely he/she will have an arduous the task of creating that new identity.
The fourth factor influencing the challenge of creating a self-identity after the death of a spouse/partner – the prevalence of outside friends and interests – is related to the second factor. The more intertwined the relationship is, the lower the probability that either person will have many outside friends and interests. As I have written before, having the support of others is an important element in the successful process of mourning. This can be especially true for spousal/partner loss. Friends and interests outside the relationship can help us find “me” more quickly than if we are on our own.
While the question of “Who am I” arises in almost every type of loss, my personal experience has been that it is more prevalent and profound in cases of spousal/partnership death than it is in any other. As I have written many times before, there are no hard and fast rules, timetables, or techniques related to mourning. So, do not be surprised if the question “Who am I” comes up and do not be disappointed if it does not.