The words we use to define ourselves often begin with the roles we play in life. We each have roots as someone’s child, and grandchild. Family ties may link us as a brother or sister; aunt or uncle; niece or nephew. Choosing to marry creates the roles of husband and wife. Many parents consider the title of mother or father to be their primary descriptor, one that influences every area of their life. We are friends, neighbors, volunteers, and community leaders. Our relationships help us place ourselves in the grand scheme of things.
When someone is removed from our lives by death the roles that previously shaped our identity are permanently altered. After the death of a parent, a spouse, a child, a sibling, or a friend the little things that were unique to our relationship with that person become memories. Questions about where we fit in without the person who died can become all encompassing. Are we the same person when the roles we filled just yesterday are suddenly no longer available?
Grief can cause a massive identity crisis. When life roles shift without our consent we are forced to describe ourselves without the safety of familiar definitions. After my husband’s death I could no longer begin my self-description with the word wife. Swapping out the words wife and widow totally altered my sense of self, and left me struggling to place myself in a world where I was no longer a wife.
Death taught me that nouns without adjectives only tell a portion of a story. Over the years my self-worth became unconsciously defined by the nouns that applied to me. When my husband died, I lost my life partner and a defining role at the same time. Just switching my focus to the other important relationships in my life as a way of realigning my universe was tempting. There were many other nouns I could have used to fill the gap. But the gaping hole could not be filled by the shifting of titles. Grief challenged me to define myself by describing the unique gifts I bring to the people in my life. The value of being me rests not in who I am related to, but rather in how I relate to the people I love. After all we don’t miss our deceased loved ones because of what they were; we miss all the quirky, personal adjectives that defined them.