I’ve been reading Different after You: Rediscovering Yourself and Healing after Grief and Trauma by Michele Neff Hernandez, the woman behind Camp Widow, which I mentioned a few weeks ago. I think the book is geared more toward someone who experienced a sudden loss rather than those of us who saw their loved one die slowly over time, but even given that I’m likely not her ideal imagined audience, I found quite a bit of value in it.
She focuses on the idea that you can’t be the same person after a traumatic loss as you were before the loss, addressing the common idea that a marker of having healed after loss is that you are “back to being yourself.” Hernandez says there is no going back. She says that version of yourself died with your loved one and suggests that instead of trying to return to who you used to be, it is better to focus on who you are becoming as a result of the loss.
It’s a tough idea for me to swallow, in part because I really liked who I was before my husband died—and particularly, who I was before his stroke. I like myself now, too, but I do want to be that carefree adventurous person who hosted big dinners that I was before his stroke. That person who rafted and motorcycled on weekends and showed up to work on Monday with hilarious stories about an unexpected swim in a rapid or a trip detour that provided an unofficial opportunity to test some new gear. Who I am now in comparison is pretty dull.
This shifting in identity is considered a secondary loss. Last December, I posted about the secondary losses I was noticing at the time: my identity as a wife and caregiver, hopes and dreams, energy, and confidence about going new places. Today when I think about secondary losses, I most notice the activities that I loved before my husband’s stroke that are not part of my life anymore. This includes rafting, hosting dinner parties, local travel (within Colorado but outside Denver), and camping.
A lot of what I did before his stroke just isn’t possible for me to do now because of my impaired vision. I had to stop driving in 2019 because of my vision. I have depended on public transportation since then to get to and from work and to run errands. My husband did all the driving when we camped, took road trips, or needed more groceries than I could carry by myself. When his stroke made it impossible for him to drive, our world became a lot smaller. His stroke was just a couple months into the pandemic, when a lot of people’s worlds got smaller, but now that most pandemic restrictions are gone, the smallness of my world is more noticeable.
I have been slowly creeping up on the idea that I may not ever go back to being who I was before my husband died. For example, I had noticed that the idea of hosting a big dinner no longer even sounds appealing to me. I used to love setting up a long table that spanned my dining and living rooms that could seat 20+ people; my husband even made me a table extension specifically for that purpose. I enjoyed planning a meal and cooking for a crowd. Now none of that appeals to me. I seem to have become much more introverted, for one thing. When I imagine having a house full of people, I think of all the noise and how draining it would be to have to talk to everyone and make them feel welcomed. I think, too, about how complicated it would be to get groceries for such a big meal without being able to drive. It’s doable, of course—I’m sure a friend would be willing to drive me—but the effort to arrange a ride and then have to be social on the ride feels like more than I can handle right now.
Hernandez talks about how she stopped riding her bike after her husband died. At first, she felt uncomfortable telling people she no longer rode the bike, as if it reflected poorly on her love for him. Over time, she became more confident owning the decision. I think this is what’s happening for me with hosting dinners. Folks do ask me from time to time if I think I’ll host another dinner. Most recently when someone asked me that, I said, “I think those dinners are a thing of the past,” and it felt good to acknowledge that. Once I said it to someone else, it became more possible for me to think of my life in the future not involving giant dinner parties. Before I said it, hosting big dinner parties again felt like a worthy goal to work toward. The pressure to host another dinner party was coming from my expectation that healing would mean going back to being who I was before. Releasing myself from that expectation is a relief.
Coming to terms with losing those parts of me that are gone, at least for now, is painful, even when it is also a relief. The dinner parties of the past were wonderful and I had no sense when I hosted the last one that it would be the last one. I probably had already started anticipating the next one before the last one was over. I see in this sentiment that I am grieving the life I lost when my husband had his stroke. I miss that life tremendously, even while I’m enjoying the life I’m building now.