Loss of Self Identity after Bereavement or Divorce

by Elizabeth Postle, RN, HV, FWT

Loss of self identity is not what we expect following a bereavement, divorce, separation or even loss of health, but change is inevitable. 

This topic has come up several times on forums recently with people lamenting the fact that they miss the person they were before they lost their loved one, or before they or a loved one became ill. I have heard friends say they grieve for the person they used to be, part of the carefree happy couple, or the child who thought their parents would be around forever. Researchers report that mothers, in particular, who have lost a child report strong feelings of loss of self-esteem and self-identity. (1) These are questions we need to ask ourselves:

Does our personality change following the death of a loved one or following divorce?

Who are we after we suffer a bereavement or divorce or loss of health?  

These changes are a normal part of the grieving process, but the loss of self-identity is something which we don’t expect, and something for which we are not prepared.  We don’t realise that we will be mourning the loss of the self we used to be with our partner, parent or sibling, or the self we used to be when we were expecting a child, when we were a mother, or when we were healthy.  

Quote about loss of self - “One of the greatest tragedies in life is to lose your own sense of self and accept the version of you that is expected by everyone else.” 
― K.L. Toth

Many of us believe that a new person emerges from the grief.

From being a couple for many years we now have total responsibility for all daily challenges. The confident sharing of all life had to offer us has gone. With it the person we were has disappeared too. Coming to terms with accepting this lonely pathway is part of the healing process.

If we have lost a child, our whole identities as parents change and we may feel that we have failed as a mother or father. It can be hard to re-imagine a role in life without parenthood. 

We are not the same person, but eventually we can be stronger, able to face our new situation with more confidence. There will be happy moments with family or friends but also sad angry moments of “Why has this happened to me”?

Then we have moments of “I cannot cope with this”. However we have no choice. The situation is real and we have to cope for our own sanity and for our families’ sakes. Most of us also do it for our loved one’s sake.

After a divorce many cope to prove to the ex that they can enjoy life again. Read our pages about coping with divorce.

Loss of Self Can Lead to Healthy Change

Whatever motivation we have to continue along this pathway, at the end of it we are older, more experienced. A knowledge of how difficult life can be makes us less likely to take our lifestyles for granted, as we once did.

No one ever said life was easy, but it is precious, each day a gift we can endeavour to make the most of.

Yes we do change. We are older, wiser, with hopefully realistic expectations. Once again we are individuals, as we were in the many years before we met our partners or before our lives changed for whatever reason. I cope too, by looking at the future as my time.  Having been a wife, mother and having had a busy working life this is my bucket list time.

I was very lucky to have had a great family and husband. A career I loved. Yes I wish I was part of the couple again, but I am not, so I look forward to days with friends, many laughs and much positive thinking.

Ways to Regain Your Self-Identity after a Loss

Here are a few practical ways that you can work on to find your sense of self again and work out what you would like to do with your life: 

  • Think back to when you were a child or teenager and what you wanted to do with your life.  Get in touch with those interests and desires again. Maybe go back to studying something you were interested in way back. 
  • Pick up some interests or hobbies you have let slip. 
  • Look through old photos of yourself and see what you think that person wanted out of life. 
  • Make a list of activities you'd like to do now, and try and do one every day.  Even if it is something simple like doing a jigsaw, or reading a book.  
  • Make new friends by joining a group or a class.  
  • Write a list of places you'd like to visit and start to plan.  
  • Listen to all the music you love and that you haven't heard in a while.
  • Write a journal of your thoughts, dreams and memories.  Journalling can be a very positive way of coping with grief.  Read more about writing through your grief here.  

Try to love the person you have become. You will be stronger and able to enjoy time with friends and family again, surprise yourself. Go and enjoy your day. 

Some of us will have more difficulty adapting to our new selves and moving forward from our grief.  If that is you, don't feel bad, we are all different and come to terms with our losses at different times.  Some take longer than others, and some will need more help.  


(1) Patricia Wonch Hill, Joanne Cacciatore, Karina M. Shreffler & Kayla M. Pritchard (2017) The loss of self: The effect of miscarriage, stillbirth, and child death on maternal self-esteem, Death Studies,41:4, 226-235, DOI: 10.1080/07481187.2016.1261204

Related Pages: 

Do I Need Grief Counseling? 

What Are the Emotions of Grief?

Books on Coping with Grief

Elizabeth Postle had a varied and fulfilling nursing career, culminating in running her own high dependency hospice.  She is the author of this website.  Read more about her here.  

Where to get help: 

Have You Considered One-on-One Online Grief Counseling? 

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Do you feel alone and sad with no support and no idea how to move forward?  It can be tough when you are stuck in grief to find the motivation to get the most out of your precious life. 

Online counseling can help by giving you that support so you don't feel so alone. You can have someone to talk to anytime you like, a kind and understanding person who will help you to find meaning in life again, to treasure the memories of your loved one without being overwhelmed and to enjoy your activities, family and friends again.

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Hypnosis for Grief - 10 Ways It Can Help You

Try a gentle hypnotherapy track to relax the mind. Learn how self-hypnosis can help you cope with grief at any time of the day or night.  

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