When someone we love dies, a part of us dies, too. One critical part of our assumptive worlds is the relationships we have with others, especially those we love. They become integral parts of our past, our present, and our future. They are key components of our hopes, fears, dreams, and outlook on life; what we think; and how we live our lives. In short, the unique relationship we have with each of those we love helps define who we are and similarly, we help define who they are.
With our loved ones, we also assume and maintain specific roles such as father, mother, child, husband, wife, etc., each with its own set of duties and responsibilities. At the same time, we can be wife, daughter, mother, breadwinner, cook, etc. In our assumptive world, we commonly take for granted that these roles and relationships will continue. However, that is not the case. At some point, someone we love does die and with that death a unique void is created within us that can never again be filled in the same way. Our life is forever changed as our loved one is no longer around to share both memories and the present happenings of our life, or to join us in planning for the future. Our roles in life also change – we go from being a wife to being a widow, from being a husband to being a widower, from being a child to being an orphan, from being a parent to being a single parent, from having a significant other to being single, etc. Our assumptive world has changed and we are forced to reinvent ourselves if we are to survive in this new world.
How do we reinvent ourselves? We do this by learning how to live in our new world with its new roles and challenges. We learn not by reading how, but actually participating in the doing – carefully observing, experimenting, taking some risk, exploring, attempting – and not judging ourselves if we fail. Just as we learned to live a married person, now we must learn to live a single one. Just as we learned to live as a parent, we must learn to live without that child. Just as we learned to live as a child, we must now learn to live without the parental support we once relied upon. This is a time of questioning who we were, who we are now, and who we want to be; reevaluating our priorities; addressing the challenges, we didn’t have before; developing new skills; and reestablishing lost relationships.
In my counseling practice, I have seen countless clients reinvent themselves. In the perinatal loss group, parents frequently tell how their loss has almost automatically caused what was once important now to be trivial. How many times have I had widows and widowers come to me during the course of their counseling and say that they learned to do something their spouse once did for them! She might have learned how to put gas in the car while he might have learned how to run the dishwasher. While these may seem like trivial accomplishments, they are profoundly important for those who have never had to take on that responsibility. Someone else was in the role to take care of this, but now they can do it for themselves; they are proud. The small accomplishments mean that larger and larger ones CAN be achieved. There IS hope that, as one of my clients said, “… I will survive!”
I believe that the story of the phoenix is appropriate here. The loss of a loved one can make us feel like our life and the reason for our existence have been taken from us. Like the phoenix, we have been reduced to mere ashes, waiting for the wind to scatter us. However, we CAN arise out of those ashes if we choose to work at it. We can come back together as a changed, stronger person. We can once again soar and, like the eagle in the Pueblo Indian traditions, see not only the whole of life, but also the smallest of details. True, we are sadder, but oh, how much wiser, indeed.