Read an Excerpt
Fifty is not just a number to me.
Just shy of fifty, my cousin Helen lost a long battle with colon cancer. That same year my lifelong friend Edda, almost fifty, died of a virulent brain tumor just ten months after diagnosis. Both my parents had died young, my father at age thirty-five and my mother just nine days short of her fiftieth birthday.
Later that year when I turned fifty, I was very unhappy. My career began to falter as I worked a series of unsatisfying jobs. I lived a nomadic existence and was unfocused, depressed, with no sense of direction. I couldn’t decide what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. Helping others improve the quality of their lives had always been a high priority in my life, but I found it frightening that I was unable to do the same for myself. I was stuck.
And then suddenly I understood: I hadn’t expected to reach my fiftieth birthday.
No wonder I was lost; I had made no plans beyond fifty because I didn’t think I’d still be alive.
In an attempt to understand what was happening to me, I began a process of self-examination. I read about grief and loss in the works of great thinkers and writers, from Freud’s “Mourning and Melancholia” to Man’s Search for Meaning, by Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl. I read current research on loss and bereavement. I thought about the reality of mortality, the painful truth about love and death. I realized that losing loved ones and dealing with grief is a lifelong process, something that unfolds and impacts your life long after the acute symptoms of grieving subside.
After this process of self-discovery, I felt the need to connect with others who had lost loved ones. In our society, we work very hard to deny the existence of death. We color our hair and relax our wrinkled foreheads as if hiding the signs of aging will negate the inevitability of death.
When someone has lost a loved one, we tend to withdraw and stay away, telling ourselves not to bother the bereaved. Meanwhile, the bereaved feel isolated and alone. We say, “I’m sorry for your loss,” and not much else, as if it were impolite to talk about death or even bring it up much beyond the immediate aftermath of the loss.
Since I was interested in how significant losses affected other people, however, I tentatively began to broach the subject with bereaved friends and acquaintances. When I questioned these survivors, I was very surprised to discover that they were hungry to share their stories.
I asked survivors the following questions:
- Did the significant loss force you to think about your own mortality?
- Did you feel suddenly vulnerable to death yourself?
- Did you struggle for many years after the death to build confidence and find a sense of purpose?
- Does the loss continue to affect you?
- Did the loss influence how you see yourself in relation to others and the world?
- Did the loss transform your perspective on life and where you fit in?
- Did the loss give you as a survivor a sense of identity and purpose you had not recognized before?
- Did the loss prompt you to do something you would otherwise never have done?
My project brought unexpected results. For the first time in more than thirty years, my brother, who was living as a Zen Buddhist in Asia, shared with me his feelings about our parents’ deaths and his experience of those deaths. We talked together for the first time about how those losses had affected our lives. Friends of friends and people in extended networks began contacting me, interested in talking about their experiences with the death of loved ones. Long after the funerals were over and what society regards as an appropriate grieving time had passed, survivors wanted to share how significant deaths had shaped the way they lived.
Through this work, I learned that those of us who have experienced the loss of a loved one shared certain sensibilities. Contrary to social expectations, we hadn’t merely recovered from our losses and resumed the lives we had been living. I found that others who had experienced losses similar to mine compared their life span to that of the parent they had lost. We all felt a heightened sense of our own mortality. We all experienced episodes of grief and painful images, triggered by birthdays, anniversaries, holidays, and other associations with our loved one. No matter whom we had lost—a parent, sibling, spouse, or lover—no matter whether this loss had occurred five years ago or forty, we acknowledged that our losses had significantly changed our lives.
Though I found a measure of personal solace in the wisdom I had gained, I realized others might appreciate the shared knowledge and wisdom as well. This is when I decided to write this book, to compile the stories of long-term loss, to identify themes among the stories, and to explore the ways that people create meaning from loss. As survivors of loss, each of us changes. We are not—and cannot be—exactly as we were before. We adapt to our new life situation, personally and socially. Our view of the world changes; our priorities, and sometimes our values, change.
During my doctoral studies at Harvard, I examined the works of researchers and scholars and was trained to find themes and make connections. As I began collecting the stories of more than sixty survivors of significant loss, I started to see patterns. When people experience the loss of a loved one, they consciously or unconsciously develop a new identity based on their changed circumstances. What emerged from this work was my theory that there are five “identity types”—which I have called nomad, memorialist, normalizer, activist, and seeker—each of which represents a different way of creating meaning from the loss of a loved one in order to give the survivor’s life a new purpose.
In this book, I discuss how the psychological, social, and spiritual factors I examined in my research contribute to the formation of these identity types. I describe and explore each of the identity types, including its advantages and disadvantages, its strengths and weaknesses, in order to help you understand the identity you have chosen in response to the loss of your loved one. I also suggest strategies you can use to improve the quality of your life and promote healing, either by working within your present identity type or by working toward adopting another identity type that you might find more fulfilling.
THE FIVE IDENTITY TYPES
1. Nomads are characterized by a range of emotions, including denial, anger, and confusion about what to do with their lives. Nomads have not yet resolved their grief. They don’t often understand how their loss has affected their lives. The remaining four types have chosen their personal path to healing
2. Memorialists are committed to preserving the memory of their loved ones by creating concrete memorials and rituals to honor them. These range from buildings, art, gardens, poems, and songs to foundations in their loved one’s name.
3. Normalizers place primary emphasis on their family, friends, and community. They are committed to creating or re-creating them because of their sense of having lost family, friends, and community, as well as the lifestyle that accompanies them, when their loved one died.
4. Activists create meaning from their loss by contributing to the quality of life of others through activities or careers that give them a purpose in life. Their main focus is on education and on helping other people who are dealing with the issues that caused their loved one’s death, such as violence, a terminal or sudden illness, or social problems.
5. Seekers look outward to the universe and ask existential questions about their relationship to others and the world. They tend to adopt religious, philosophical, or spiritual beliefs to create meaning in their lives and provide a sense of belonging that they either never had or lost when their loved one died.
LOSS AFFECTS US ALL
The loss of a loved one affects us forever. Significant loss changes our sense of who we are and our place in the world.
At the same time, significant loss can be an opportunity to create positive change in our lives and in the world. Look at what John Walsh, host of the television program America’s Most Wanted, has achieved in helping people after the tragic murder of his young son, Adam.
Each of us who has suffered loss can transform our experience into an opportunity for growth. But in order to do so, we must first come to terms with our grief. Then we can work toward creating an identity and a life that integrate our lost loved one and our experience of loss in a positive way. We can find new meaning and purpose for our lives.
If you have ever loved someone, you face the possibility of someday losing that person. This is the risk of loving, but to me, loving is the only experience worth anything in this world.
HOW THIS BOOK WORKS
This book can help you understand how loss has affected your life and shaped you into the person you now are. This understanding will allow you to examine your motivations for past decisions and choices and identify your strengths and weaknesses. It will also help you pursue ways to resolve unfinished grieving and heal from your loss.
First, you must accept the basic premise of this book: after someone you love dies, the most daunting task you face is rebuilding your life and finding a new identity. Because you defined yourself in relation to the person who died, you must, as bereavement expert Thomas Attig explains, “relearn the world,” including your relationship with the deceased, your friends and family, and yourself as well. This task of redefining yourself, of finding a new identity after the death of your loved one, is a process that begins after the person has died and continues throughout your lifetime. Therefore, the better you understand yourself and how your loss has affected your life, the more able you will be to meet the challenges of being a survivor and having a satisfying and purposeful life.
To gain the greatest benefit from this book, start at the beginning—even if you are tempted to read first about the different identity types. Why? Because the identity types are based on information in the early chapters. The introduction describes my own experience and lays the groundwork for understanding how and why I concluded that finding a new and meaningful identity is critical to adapting successfully to a changed life—a life without your loved one. Chapter 1 describes how loss changes you forever—how your worldview is shaped, and how this is likely to change your identity, your sense of who you are. I introduce my idea of “the four pillars of identity,” and show you how they can help you find meaning from your loss, and a new fulfilling purpose in life.
I then go into detail about the five identity types: nomad (chapter 2), memorialist (chapter 3), normalizer (chapter 4), activist (chapter 5), and seeker (chapter 6). Each of these chapters begins with a definition of the identity, including a typical example for the type, drawn from a well-known event, a published article, or a film. Several key people I interviewed tell their stories of loss, and I examine why they represent the particular identity type. Their stories, often powerful, always poignant, will illustrate the advantages and disadvantages of that identity type. Theory or concepts that support or shed light on issues relevant to the identity type are woven throughout the discussion, and I propose strategies for maximizing the potential of each identity. Each of these chapters ends with questions for you to answer to help you determine whether this identity best reflects the person you have become since your loss or want to be as you attempt to heal and move forward with life.
Chapter 7 guides you through five questions that can help you identify your personal path to healing. These questions, based on what I call the four pillars of identity (discussed further later in this chapter), will allow you to examine whether and how your worldview changed after you experienced your loss. Chapter 7 also enables you to evaluate your present identity type (which you discovered in the identity type chapters), examine any “identity hang-ups” that may be preventing you from resolving your grief, and explore many suggestions for helping you heal.
Chapter 8 is a call for hope and action, in which I discuss how this book offers hope for all of you who have been affected by the death of a loved one but have not yet fully understood how this loss has influenced your life and your identity. I challenge you to evaluate your current life and your level of success in creating meaning and purpose as a result of your loss. This new insight will allow you to decide whether your current identity type suits you or whether you would prefer to work toward adopting a different identity that could further your healing.
The conclusion reminds you that you are not alone. Even if you have no family or friends, or you just feel isolated, your community offers numerous sources of support for survivors of every stripe. This chapter discusses the types of resources available—such as nonprofit organizations, support groups, churches and synagogues, and colleges and universities—and what they can offer you. An array of bereavement resources also exists at the state and national level to help you deal with the issues of your loss.
After you have read this book, I hope you will see it as a tool that you can use and return to again and again as you confront issues related to your present loss and subsequent losses throughout your life. Whether you are a bereaved individual, a professional working with the bereaved, a caregiver, or a volunteer helping others deal with their losses, this book will help you better understand the long-term impact of loss and more fully appreciate the uniqueness of each individual’s struggle to adapt to loss and find a new and fulfilling self.