Annette sat in my counseling office a couple months after the death of her fiancé Rose, and read aloud a letter she had written to Rose the day before. Anette had a way with words, and had taken to writing letters in her grief.
"Dear Rose," she read. "I woke up this morning and when I looked at myself in the mirror, I realized I was totally overwhelmed with the number of choices looming ahead of me. What should I wear? What should I eat? Where should I go? What music should I listen to? And then I thought about the other, bigger choices that I will have to make without you. Like should I still go back to school? Will I ever have kids? I don't know how to do this life without you. I don't know what I want if it isn't with you. I don't know who I am anymore. Who am I without you, my love?"
Annette's final question stayed with me. It is a question that I hear, in various forms, from many of my counseling clients who are grieving, whether it be from a death or a separation. Who am I without you?
Healing from loss is an act of creation. When someone we love dies, our world is fundamentally altered--- it is different, changed, and it can't go back no matter what we do. Our routines change. The ways we describe ourselves change. Our goals change.
In grief, our task becomes to construct our new lives.
It's not an easy task.
I spoke with a mother, we'll call her Lisa, who came in for counseling about a year after her teenage son had died. Before his death, the choices she made centered around her son. She left an abusive husband to get her son away from him. She bought the house she lived in because it was in a good neighborhood for kids, with a quality high school. She saved money out of every paycheck to help pay for his college someday. Her evenings were spent driving him to practices, games, or parties. All of her friends were the parents of his friends. When he died, she expressed the same sentiment as Annette: "Who am I without him?" Why did she live in that house, if not for his benefit? What was she saving for, if not his college? What would she do in the evenings, if not drive him to events? What did she have in common with her friends, if not the fact that they were all raising children? In addition to missing her son terribly, Lisa was grappling with the disquieting feeling that she no longer knew who she was. Like Annette, she was confronting the monumental task of constructing her changed life.
It is not always a conscious process, the construction that occurs after loss. Some steps are big and obvious, like dating again after losing a spouse. (Not everyone does, and that's okay.) Most steps, however, are small. It's these little steps that ignite the process of creation-- we start making those everyday decisions that Annette was encountering: what to eat, where to go, who to talk to, what to do on the weekend.
This task of self-discovery is often made all the more challenging by the feeling that going forward, feeling joy, and living life is an act of betrayal. This is a common feeling after a death that we often end up discussing in counseling. Sometimes it takes a while to be able to give ourselves permission-- to find that we can move forward while still cherishing and honoring the life that we once shared with the one who is now gone.
Creating this new, changed life doesn't mean that we are building a life in which our loved one doesn't exist. They do. Their impact on us does. Lisa had to get used to answering the question "Do you have any children?" when meeting new people after her son died. Lisa initially grappled with this-- she didn't feel like she could say yes, but she also didn't feel like she could say no. Learning how she wanted to answer this question was a part of finding her own identity after his death. His presence in her life, the role of mother that she had taken on at his birth, did not simply disappear, but it did change. Over time, Lisa became more confident navigating the new world in which she was living. This is not to say that she stopped mourning the loss of her son, rather that she was able to begin defining her identity, a new identity that now included mourning mother.
"Who am I without you, my love?" Annette's piercing question is a question asked in despair, but it is the very question that needs to be answered. The answer does not come all at once-- it is constructed day by day, through pain and through joy, as we choose to keep on going, as we choose to keep on choosing.
Please note: The privacy of my clients is my top priority. For that reason, all identifying details in the stories I share have been altered beyond recognition; however, I endeavor to preserve the powerful spirit of these encounters. In circumstances where this isn't possible, stories are only shared with the permission and final approval of the client. The experiences shared here are in many ways common to those of numerous clients I have seen over the years, and thus many people reading may find that there are aspects they identify with.
Miranda Featherstone is a mental health counselor based in Salem, Oregon. She writes about navigating changes, the experience of grief, and the embracing the benefits of creativity and engagement with nature. Those living in Oregon who are interested in counseling are encouraged to reach out through her website.