Identity Crisis

How I reclaimed who I was after the loss of my husband.

There is a startling identity vacuum that accompanies loss. Those caught in the wake of grief are often swallowed up by feelings of inadequacy, confusion, and crumbling self esteem – something I never could have understood until my own husband passed away.

For nine years Craig made up such an enormous part of my life, it became impossible to imagine one without him. I was his beautiful wife, the funny girl with a million stories about work, the listening ear at the end of the day, his cooking buddy, and junk food enabler. We finished each other’s sentences and called each other first when trapped on a crowded train in the dead of winter. We were each other’s best friend and looked forward to dates at the grocery store and weekends of sifting through comics and old books at the flea market. We sang at the top of our lungs in the car together and made ourselves laugh so hard we often had to stop for me to run in somewhere to pee.

We became everything to each other. And for those nine years, the me I saw was the me reflected back through my husband’s eyes. I knew I was funny because I always made him laugh. I knew I could be sweet because I was his sweetheart. I was smart because I was the first person he came to for advice. I was beautiful because I always caught him looking.

The day he died, I stopped knowing who I was.

No longer did I have a mirror walking around, reflecting back to me who I thought I was. I didn’t have anyone to laugh at my jokes, not that I had many at the time. Gone were the days of my husband greeting me at the door, snuggling up to me for movies, and curling against me at night. The lack of physical contact left me bereft – I’d never felt less attractive, less beautiful. Of course incessant sobbing that left mascara tracks down my face and a constantly running nose didn’t help.

Along with the physical shock to my body – that wonderfully included constant nausea, sweat-inducing anxiety, and frequent chest pains that left me doubled-over gasping for air – my mind decided to call it quits. While I had previously taken pride in my work, always studying up and reading to be one step ahead of very question, every task, I had suddenly inherited the attention span of a goldfish with a memory to match. A co-worker would tell me something and 20 minutes later I’d have to ask them all over again what they had said. Then again in another hour. And at least twice more by lunch. I couldn’t think, couldn’t focus, and the years and years of facts I had accumulated for my work trickled out of my mind like a leaky tap.

I suddenly became as incapable and feeble as everyone around me seemed to think I was. I couldn’t figure out how to turn on the lawn mower. I couldn’t change a simple light fixture. I couldn’t seem to remember that my car keys didn’t fit in the house door. I bumped into every pointy surface, spilled all things spillable, and couldn’t put a shirt on the right way to save my life.

Everywhere I went people gave me a wide berth and while I knew, logically, it was merely out of discomfort, I began feeling more and more like a social pariah, as though my grief was the worst kind of infectious disease. I’d walk into rooms and instantly the conversation would stop. Or the whispering would begin.

It’s no wonder I was lost.

Gone were the days of the smart me, the funny me, the clever me, the me who could take on the world. At best I was broken. At worst, I didn’t exist at all.

The hardest part in this was trying to articulate what was happening to me. That I had lost my identity – everything I thought I was. Everything I knew myself to be. It wasn’t until the day I caught myself whooping with delight over de-clogging my own bathtub drain for the first time that I realized what needed to be done.

I needed to take back me.

I started small. I learned how to hang my own pictures in the house. I forced myself to shovel my own walk. I reminded myself to put on both earrings before leaving the house. I even shaved my legs. Both of them. On the same day.

With those small tasks underway, I began stretching further. I forced myself out of the house to meet new people. I tried new things. I played pool. I tried rollerblading. I swam with dolphins and went speed boating. I sweated through yoga and even entered a photography contest. I made my first cheesecake from scratch. I wanted to push myself out of my comfort zone, inch by painful inch.

Soon I began tackling the bigger things on my life list. I travelled, visiting places I’d never gone to but always secretly yearned for. I changed my wardrobe. I cut my hair.

Then I took the biggest leap yet – I finally summoned the courage to leave my career and go back to school, starting all over. It wasn’t easy. That first semester was one of the hardest things I’d done and every day I dragged myself to class, feeling beyond uncomfortable over the obvious age gap between me and the other students. My attention span and memory were still not what they once were (and likely never will be) but I hunkered down and forced myself ahead.

Every new challenge became a new victory.

Getting my first A, finding a new job, surviving my personal trainer at the gym.

And slowly, slowly I began to find me again.

Turns out with a little bit of make-up and the right pair of heels I could still be beautiful. While I’ll certainly never pass for athletic, I could finally do a full hour of weights and sprints without fainting. While it means working at bit harder, I still get my straight A’s and even won a scholarship. Now I’m on the dean’s list. And after amassing a new set of great stories, it turns out I can still be pretty funny. Even if I’m only making me laugh.

The nice side effect of all this is that I’m starting to love not only my life again, but trying new things as well. I can’t wait to start fencing lessons and plan on giving snowboarding a try this winter. I am volunteering as a grief group facilitator in town and have recently taken up hot yoga.

Given my lack of athletic prowess, it’s not surprising that the latter actually makes me cry more.

But I’m getting to know me all over again.  And you know what?  I kind of like it. It’s good to be me again.

Our thanks to guest author Emily Clark for sharing her story here with us.  You can read more of Emily’s journey through young widowhood on her blog.

Photo credit.

11 Comments:

  1. Kerry N said on May 30, 2013 at 4:15 pm ... #

    Emily,
    You nailed everything!! I’m not at the point you are yet, the points of light for me are just surviving another day where people don’t notice how lost I am and my sons laugh and have a good day/evening.

    I do need to get back to the gym, etc., right now it just takes everything I have to get through my day and be there for my sons. I teach high school English, tomorrow is our last day.

    Thank you for your words. Starting Monday, I’m going to try 1 small, new thing each day – Maybe someday I’ll be back to the person I had thought I was too, maybe an even better version of that person.

    Kerry

  2. Teresa said on June 17, 2013 at 12:09 pm ... #

    Hi Emily,

    I too went back to school after my husband’s death. My kids signed me up and I went to my first class with my 21 year old daughter. I would never have had the courage to do it without the help of my kids. A year after my first class I was taking 22 credit hours with classes like Biology, Political Science and Macroeconomics. I made seven A’s that semester. School keeps my mind busy on other things besides my grief.
    Teresa

  3. Jana said on June 27, 2013 at 11:01 am ... #

    I also lost my husband 8 months ago and I tried to act as things were okay for our kids but I found myself feeling I had lost myself. Your story gave me the light I needed as I too feel and see I lost myself.

    I’m happy you learned to love life again and I look forward on using your words to find myself once again.

    Wishing you the very best of life!

  4. Carla said on July 27, 2013 at 11:14 pm ... #

    My husband died four years ago. I’ve worked on moving on, yet I still have something holding back. Your writing has helped me realize that I need to work on making those small changes in my life. I need to try something different and figure out who I am in my new normal life. You’ve given me the inspiration to do that…at just the right time. Thank you.

  5. Fonda said on August 7, 2013 at 12:33 am ... #

    Emily, you expressed many of the feelings that I have daily! The anxiety I have about this new life is most overwelming some days. My husband was my reflection and he was murdered January 7, 2013, much of my identity is gone. I spend many days trying to gather the pieces of this new me. I often describe it to friends as, waking up in a foreign land, I don’t speak the language and I don’t know directions anywhere. I lost my compass! He was my best friend and the world sounds and looks quite different since he is gone. It’s really weird because most times when people see my children and I we look like we haven’t missed a beat, but we feel broken inside. Fortunately, I’m encouraged by the fact that God makes all things new! There will be triumph after this trial… thanks for the inspiration. Peace and Blessings to you all

  6. Vicki Jones said on February 24, 2014 at 2:53 pm ... #

    Emily, thank you for the things you wrote. I lost my beautiful husband 3 months ago. I know this is still really new but after 38 years together I to felt like he was my reflection and I never looked or felt quite as beautiful as I did reflected back from his eyes. I am twelve years younger than he was and he had some health problems when we met. He was a smoker and I had never smoked so he made me a promise that he would stop smoking and he did right then and there. He never picked up another cigarette but the damage was already been done. I married my first husband when I was 17 so I really had not even gotten my own identity then. So after being with Jay for 38 years I do not have a clue how to do this thing by myself. I am just going through the motions of my life each day. At the end I had become his sole care giver because he was not able to get around very well. I so miss taking care of him. I felt like I was giving him back alittle bit of the joy and love he had given to me for so many years. Hopefully I will be able to get through this. I hope I can be as open to different things as you seem to be. He was the sparkle and I was the glue in our union. So I need to try some of the sparkle. I know our 6 sons will help me get through this but I want to be strong like he was for our children.

  7. Diana Daniels said on March 5, 2014 at 5:12 pm ... #

    Hello every one my name is Diana i lost my son Charles November 18 2012 at 1:45am on a Sunday morning, he was restless and wanted to take a walk that probably will relax him and he stated that a new game was coming out the following day he wanted to pick up so he was going to stop by the bank, on his way back he was spotted on the street coming from the bank, he was bullied killed a robbed from gang members, Charles was all i had i had 24 years with this bright kind handsome compassion a big lover of life person and i always seem him as my side kick we were very close,24 years of being his mother, his teacher his nurse when he was sick his care giver it now gone, the killed my future my link of life, i couldn’t wait until the day my son was going to get married it gave me promise to new family members and grand children some thing i’ll never have so my link of life was broken, when they killed my son my God i though and i felt that they killed me, considered my life link is broken they did, who will now carry my fathers name who will carry my extension of my life they will never happen, i lost a big part of my self that day, and then i suffered with the sudden death shock syndrome, the depression that over whelmed me the lost of trust in people i locked my self up away from the world lived my days for 5 months in four walls of my home and grieved my way out of this, oh the pain the suffering the deepest part of sadness i think i had reached the endless pit, then i remembered God the father my lord my divine grace i called on him, my son was placed back with him who else should i call on because he has my son let me know Jesus now let me understand him let me learn what’s in store for me later let me know of his promise to us for our after life, i think with out him i would have died slowly in my grief, but i’m here today and i so grateful that i put my faith back with him,now i can carry the love that i have for my son and remember the best of our years we had together and take the lessons with me, i still cry i water my soul with my tears i aloud it to grow, it’s a part of my grief process, and i know and understand that this is still new to me the grief that i will always carry with me that will never go away but couse the love i had for my son was so great and that i will always remember him with love.

  8. Paula said on March 21, 2014 at 3:53 pm ... #

    Beautifully written! I lost my oldest son 3 years ago while he was home on leave from the Army. It has certainly been a process of re-inventing how I see myself as a mother and my own identity. *hugs*

  9. Hope said on March 21, 2014 at 10:42 pm ... #

    Thank you Emily for expressing your feelings that match mine in words. I didn’t really realize it was myself I was looking for! I have the freedom to do anything I want but without my husband I don’t see the point nor the fun in it. We were soul mates and after reading your story I realize I need to find me again instead of trying to find the next step in life. So sad we all have to go through this. God has a plan for each of us. :)

  10. Ilene said on May 18, 2014 at 2:50 pm ... #

    Thank you for all that has been written here. On March 22, 2014 I lost Terry, my loving partner, my best friend, my everything. He was my rock, my guide post and without him I am lost.

    Losses and changes started for me on October 21 when we moved into a house from the camper we had been living in. It was a fixer upper and we had so many plans for it.

    Terry at that point was having back pain and some weight loss. All of which we thought was due to his new job as milker at the family dairy.

    Shortly after the move I had to have surgery for breast cancer. It was caught early but I still needed 38 radiation treatments.

    On December 9th Terry was told by the doctor who was treating an infected ulcer on his leg that he was to stay off it until the infection was cleared. From then on things went from bad to the very worse.

    Terry continued to lose weight. The pain in his back became unbearable to the point that he was hospitalized for 10 days. And still no one could tell us what was wrong.

    Finally, after seeing an incredible specialist the answers came. Terry had a compression fracture in his spine and cancer of the lungs, liver, spline, and bones, and it was terminal.

    26 days later he passed away in a wonderful facility known as the Ashland Kentucky Hospice Care Center and my world collapsed.

    From the time we moved into what was supposed to be our home I lost my love, my health, my home (I could not afford it on my own), a job where I was happy (I’ve had to move in with a friend a state away), my feelings of safety and security, and my trust in tomorrow.

    Each day just getting out of bed is an issue. Yet, after reading all of this I feel that there is hope that somewhere in this process of grief things will get a bit easier and maybe someday when I look at his picture a smile will come instead of the tears that now flow.

  11. Dan brezinski said on January 20, 2015 at 5:42 am ... #

    My and my girlfriend of 3 and a half years mived to California 6 minths ago. Everything was fine in the beggining but about a month and a half ago she told me she wanted to be alone. Shes not one to venture out and do things but I know we a soulmates. Everything and anythjng we do is better together. When she is in a sad and deppressed mood we can still laugh. She never had a job or any friends until she met me. We bring the best out of each other. Now she says the reason she wants to be alone is because shes having an identity crisis. She works a minimum wage job and wants to try and get an apartment by herself. I keep explaining to her that she will have to get anouther job and that she wont be happy if shes work 6 days a week to try and make rent. I explain to her that love like we ahve only comes aling once in a lifetime and that if I leave we will never be together again. She makes me a better person and I make her a better person and I tell her she doesnt have to get ride of me to find herself. I know I can help her and Im willing too. I know this thread is about the loss of a husband. But would everyone rather have ther e loved ones back than have to go through this change? I know we can have an amazing life together but is this change worth losing the only person that knows you? That truley understands you? Would you guys give everything up to have them back? I just dont want to let her go and I know i will never love anyone else like her. She says she doesnt know who
    She is anymore. I dont want to know if I should let her go I just want to know if you guys think its worth it to let the one person you truley love go because of an identity crisis. I want to help her find herself why does she feel the need to get rid of me?

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