The following is a guest post by Shelby Forsythia, the author of Your Grief, Your Way.
When someone we love dies, a part of us dies as well. While society has set practices and rituals for people who die, we rarely get an opportunity to honor, grieve, and release the person that we used to be and the life that we used to live. It can be helpful to take some time to grieve our self before loss so that we become more able—and even willing—to embrace the self that loss is forcing us to become.
Here’s how to grieve the person you used to be, featuring helpful excerpts from the daily grief book, Your Grief, Your Way:
How to grieve the person you used to be
1. Take an identity inventory.
In order to fully honor what we’re grieving, we must clarify and name what we’ve lost. What about your old self—precisely—are you grieving? Is it your ability to focus? Your creativity? Your belief in god? Name it and write it down.
Try this: Pick up a few flat stones outside or purchase a bag of river rocks from a craft store. With a permanent marker or paint pen, write your name on one of the rocks, to represent your old self, and on the others, write all the intangible things you’re grieving. These can be things like “faith,” “trust in myself,” “creativity,” “the belief that the good guys always win,” and so on. When you’re done, bury your “old self” along with your “losses,” saying something like “I acknowledge that in losing my loved one, I also lost my old self and [insert invisible losses].” If you don’t have access to a place to bury your stones, consider safely tossing them into a lake or pond. 1
2. Resist the urge to sanctify or vilify your old self.
It’s easy to try to separate from the person you used to be by making them into an image of perfection and happiness that you desperately want to get back to or a naive, dimwitted youngster who hadn’t yet witnessed the trauma of loss. Acknowledge that your old self was human—containing both bad and good—and the person you’re becoming will be human too.
3. Create a ritual for grieving your old self.
One “upside” of society’s lack of ritual surrounding grieving your old self is that you have complete freedom to invent your own! Consider DIY-ing a grief ritual to suit the way you prefer to process your grief. Some ideas include:
- Set aside an hour to “speak to” a photo of the person you used to be. Thank them for taking you this far and let them know that you’ll be taking memories of them forward with you.
- Cut your hair, buy a piece of jewelry, or do something (safe) the “old you” would never do. As you do it, invite in “Me, version 2.0,” acknowledging that you’re building on—not erasing—the self that came before
- Write a letter or record a voice memo addressed to your old self calling in other “old selves” (your 5th grade self, your six-year-old self, your college grad self) to remind you that this is not the first time you’ve been asked to evolve. See what words of wisdom they have for you. If this is too hard, envision your eighty-year-old self and think about what wisdom they would have for you now.
4. Incorporate “griever” into your new identity.
Because you’ve experienced loss, the permanent identity of “griever” is now a part of your identity. It is not the whole part, but it does inform just about everything else in your life. It’s okay to resent that fact, and it’s also okay to accept it. Keep in mind that identifying as a “griever” doesn’t mean that the pain of your loss will exist forever; it simply means that you are a person living a life after loss.
There’s a big difference between living life after loss and identifying as a person who’s living life after loss. One is an action, a series of routines and motions; the other is an identity, a wholehearted “taking on” of your story. When you take on the identity of a person who’s living life after loss, you acknowledge the fact not only that you’re grieving, but also that you are a grieving person who is allowing that truth to sink into your bones. 2
5. Remember that all is not lost.
It’s tempting to throw out the entirety of your old self and feel an intense pressure to start from scratch. But what about you is still true across time? This could be something as simple as, “I still hate olives.” or “My favorite book is Big Magic.” See what through lines you’re bringing forward with you. It might help you to remember that all is not lost; there are pieces of you that companion you across your lifetime. You still have some ground left to stand on.
6. Introduce yourself to your new self.
It’s okay if you don’t feel ready to cozy up to your new self just yet. In fact, you may feel like a stranger to yourself, or like an alien has temporarily taken residence inside your body. Try introducing yourself to the person you’re becoming (in the mirror, through a letter, etc.) and invite them to tell you who they are now.
If you don’t recognize who you are anymore, that’s okay. Many grieving people report behaving differently after the death of a loved one, as if an entirely new person has come to live in their body. There’s a lot of resentment involved in losing, practically overnight, who we used to be. Like, where did that kind, predictable, comfortable person go?
If you’re disturbed or distraught by your new self, gently speak to them as if meeting them for the first time. Say things like “We’ve never met before, so I’m curious to get to know you,” or “I don’t understand why you do the things you do, but I’m willing to learn,” or “I know we’re not meeting under the best of circum- stances, so pardon me if I’m a little bitter and distant at first.” You don’t have to know or take ownership of your post-loss self just yet; you just have to acknowledge their presence. 3
7. Practice living as your new self through self-compassionate trial-and-error.
Loss thrusts us into what I like to call “the divine dressing room” of grief. In this life after loss, the identities that used to fit us don’t anymore—like a pair of worn-out shoes or jeans that are eight sizes too small. Show yourself mercy and gentleness as you try on new identities after loss. There’s no pressure to decide all of who you are today, and like the rest of us—grievers and non-grievers alike—you are free to keep becoming “new selves” for as long as you live.
I often refer to life after loss as an “involuntary scavenger hunt.” You didn’t want to be on this mission of grief, but you’re on it, so here you are, turning over rocks and trying on new rituals and testing out new paths to see which is the best fit for your new life after loss. It feels silly and disorienting at times, as if you’re fumbling around a forest with no marked trail, but it’s not the direction of your movement that matters at first; it’s the fact that you keep moving, period. You didn’t sign up for this life, but you have to live it. Creating momentum—no matter how slow you think you’re moving—opens doorways to alternatives and possibilities for you. 4
Still looking for comfort and practical exercises for life after loss? Check out Your Grief, Your Way, a nonreligious 366-day guidebook for life after loss.