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The Other Part of Grief

On a recent road trip, I found myself singing along to songs from Les Miserables. One song, in particular, has stuck in my mind the way some songs do, for better or worse. I’m happy to report that this one is for the better. I think! I catch myself singing snippets of it in the shower. It’s the song going through my head when I wake up. The song is sung by Jean Valjean at a critical point in his life, one of those crossroads moments, if you will. Having an important decision to make, Jean Valjean sings “Who Am I?” as he does some soul-searching to make his decision.

It’s not so bad that “Who Am I?” is my earworm for now. It definitely could be worse! The title alone is worth pondering regularly, I believe. Let’s face it, we all fi nd ourselves at a crossroads from time to time. Taking the time to reflect on who you are at those critical junctures in life may make all the difference in how you see yourself and live your life.

It’s about identity. Now, it’s not like we’re walking around each day talking about our identity. There’s a big difference between someone asking you, “Who are you?” and you asking yourself, “Who am I?” The way we think about ourselves, the story we tell ourselves about who we are, how we defi ne ourselves, all of that comes together to create our identity. Interestingly, we aren’t usually aware of our identity until something changes. And even then, it may not be an instant awareness but something realized over time.

The death of someone you love may be one of the most challenging experiences you can face. Coping with the loss of your loved one isn’t an easy thing to do. In experiencing the death of a loved one, we tend to focus on the loss of the person, which is to be expected. A huge part of that experience is our grief. We need to recognize, however, that although the loss of our loved one is primary, there is another part of grief.

We also have secondary losses that go along with or develop from the loved one’s death. These losses aren’t secondary in importance, just that they depend upon a primary loss. Secondary losses are many and are unique to each person’s situation. Examples include but are not limited to loss of relationships, financial loss when income is affected, loss of meaning and purpose in life, loss of roles, loss of beliefs, loss of security, loss of expectations, and loss of hopes and dreams. We may not be aware of it, but these additional losses must be dealt with over and above the actual loss of your loved one.

Secondary losses affect our identity in subtle but deep ways. These are the ones that beg us to deal with the question, “Who am I?” These are the ones we may not even know need to be tended to because we try to continue to live life as we normally did before the death of our loved one. We keep trying to do things the way we did before, and it doesn’t work.

The reality is that you are not the same person after experiencing your loss, and trying to return to the way things were before isn’t possible. You are different. Loss shapes, changes, and molds us like few other things in life can do. Most grievers feel like a part of them is missing, and every day there will be a void where their loved one could be. While there will always be that deep sense of grief around the people we lose, it doesn’t mean that there aren’t other things that can bring joy, purpose, and contentment into who we are. It just takes time before we recognize it and rethink our identity.

That’s why, I believe, we need to ask ourselves, “Who am I?” We need to acknowledge how we are different because of our loss and give ourselves permission to let go of who we no longer are to fi nd who we are to become. Definitely not an easy process, but well worth it. Also, it’s not a question to be dealt with once, and then you’re done. This is a question to ask yourself over and over for as long as you live.

I remember someone coming to talk with me about their grief and the difficulty dealing with it gave them. That person spoke beautifully of life and their love for the person who had died. There was, however, a sense of unsettledness in the person’s presence, a sense that something was not quite right within. We had a good conversation about many aspects of their grief journey and coming to terms with their primary loss. However, the secondary losses, the ones that remind us that we have work to do in coming to terms with our new identity, had gone unrecognized, but were interrupting their ability to live life. I offered the reminder that they weren’t the same person now that they were before their loved one died. Their life couldn’t be lived the way it had been before their loss. We shared a long silence, and then I heard the exhale of a big deep breath. Next came a great big smile and a thank you. Finally, all of the difficulty seemed to make sense, and a way was being offered to discover a new identity amid their new reality.

Maybe you have an idea of what that person was experiencing. Have you talked to yourself lately?

Maybe it’s time for a bit of soul-searching on your part. Is it time to ask yourself, “Who am I?”


Lee Ann Livingston

Spiritual Care Provider

The Hospice & Community Care team has a number of resources available for helping families walk through grief and loss.
Learn more about the support and services available to you.

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