I used to gain a large part of my identity from my career. I devoted long hours and lots of energy to it.
When I married, my identity shifted from my career to my marriage as half of a “couple.” My husband and I were both very independent and strong-willed people, but we agreed on the important things and we carved out a good life. I got comfortable in that role, and, on some level, lazy.
When my husband died, my identity was ripped in half, and for the longest while I didn’t know what to do about that or who I was. Through grief counseling, which I HIGHLY recommend, I learned that my core person was still inside and I needed to tease it back out into the open.
Just like my brain, my identity had become rusty. My counselor cautioned me about holding on to physical possessions just because they had belonged to my husband or because they were part of our life together. She didn’t want me to use those items as a desperate attempt to hold on to my old identity. It took me several months to get it, but I finally fully understand what she meant.
Now when I perform a task, I ask myself if I am doing it the way I am because it’s how my husband and I did it, or because it makes sense for me to do it this way. I have found some efficiencies by being honest with myself, and have shifted some priorities to fit my life.
For example, preparing and taking the boat to camp. Every spring, it was a big production to get the boat ready for transport to camp: changing oil and cleaning out the boat and making sure there were no motor problems and the wheel bearings on the boat trailer weren’t worn out and that gas was fresh, etc. But it was worth it because we fished a fair amount and enjoyed our time together on the water.
I am not much of a pleasure boater, but I do like fishing. The first two years after Jim died, I had the boat readied and hauled it to camp. I tried fishing alone and just found myself feeling horribly trapped with memories that caused me lots of pain and anguish. Did it make sense for me to keep a tradition that didn’t fit my life at the moment and actually caused me pain?
As it happened, the last couple of years I have been tied up with other things during prime fishing season, so I left the boat home when I did finally get to camp. The world did not end because I changed the way we had always done things, and I enjoyed my time more because I wasn’t trying to hold on to something that would never be the same again.
The boat will go to camp again. Maybe next year. But when it does, it will be because I am ready to bring it back into my life under my own terms and for my own reasons. And maybe by then, the memories it evokes will make me happy.
I also am slowly weeding through possessions. Am I keeping an object because it is symbolic of a special memory? Is it because it belonged to my husband? Do I really like the object in question as an ornament or will I use it if it is meant to be used? Does it really have a function in my life? Does it help define my identity? Tough questions for sure, but I have a good friend who is awesome at asking those questions to my face, and I solicit her help and/or support, especially when I tackle the more daunting projects.
One of the first things I did in the days immediately after my husband’s death was to claim the kitchen as my own space. I cleared it of the bric a brac and the little containers of “pocket junk” that loved to fill up my counter space and put those items in a box and stuffed it into the hall closet. I needed a space where I could look around and not be reminded that Jim was gone. I even sat in his chair at the kitchen table so that I didn’t have to sit in mine and see that his was empty.
But that box of “stuff” is still in my hall closet nearly five years later and it’s time for it to go. There are a few things in it that still have a purpose and I know what they are without looking in the box, but the rest needs to be thrown out. The miscellaneous screws, washers, bent nails and unidentifiable pieces of plastic and metal that always found their way into Jim’s pockets and then into containers on the counter obviously have no role in my life. But I have to admit that I dread the act of letting them go. It feels personal. They were such a part of our everyday life together and in a way they are part of my identity — of my married identity that is slowly being replaced by my new one. But my friend will be there, making sure emotion doesn’t overrule common sense, and celebrating another small victory with me.
One change that I thought would be hard for me ended up giving me a sense of relief. My husband and I loved being at camp, and the camper we shared was an important place to both of us. But it was older, although well maintained, and it was dark and cave-like and I really was not enamoured with the camper itself. So after a couple seasons of staying in it alone, an opportunity came to get a different one and I grabbed it. My newer camper is a little longer, is brighter inside, accommodates how I live with my four dogs and reflects my personality much better than the old one.
I was surprised that I could make the change so easily, but having a space that was of my choosing helped me adapt my camping experience to be my own too. And the old camper has been repurposed. The campground owner purchased it and retrofitted it into a sugarhouse to process maple sap into syrup each spring.
I have had the pleasure of eating syrup that was processed within its walls, and have enjoyed seeing the camper in its converted state. Pieces of the old camper are spread around the campground too. One friend uses its awning. Another couple has one of the cupboard doors, which adorns a new storage space in their camper. Other pieces were used elsewhere. Jim would have approved, and when I see these things, a happy little glow flares in my heart.
Identity defined through another person or other people is tricky business, but coming to a place of new identity is a process. I had my own identity before I was married; I had a married identity; and now my new identity is moving beyond the label of “widow.” I think once it emerges more strongly, I will guard it more fiercely and not give it up as easily as I did before. And the changes made to it will be by my choice, not by another’s. The journey back to strength is proving to be a long one, and scary at times, but I know that whoever I become will be uniquely me.