"That was a memorable day to me, for it made great changes in me. But, it is the same with any life. Imagine one selected a day struck out of it, and think how different its course would have been. Pause you who read this, and think for a moment of the long chain of iron or gold, of thorns or flowers, that would never have bound you, but for the formation of the first link on one memorable day."--Charles Dickens, Great Expectations, page 69.
Pip--Dickens' main character (and in significant ways, alter-ego)--is reflecting on his first encounter with Miss Havisham. It is the encounter that is to shape the rest of his life. Pip suggests that the event made changes in him, not merely in his circumstances or his life course. Since there wasn't a "control" Pip who was spared that encounter, there is no way to test this assertion. We must take Dickens on his word, but that word makes sense to us.
As I talk with bereaved people, I hear an anxious observation around the edges of the conversation. "It's like I'm not the same person any more." I certainly hear that observation from those who had been close to the bereaved before the loss. "She has changed so much. Where did that come from? When did he start liking tea instead of coffee? I've never seen her in those clothes before."
The ancient counsel for the bereaved to keep all things the same for a year after the loss may be designed to save us from the consequences of temporary insanity. It is also designed, however, to make those who knew us "before" a little more comfortable.
Significant events, however, can make us remarkably different people. "Personality can change," writes Judith Rich Harris in No Two Alike, "evidence from large numbers of subjects shows that it can change, to some extent, even in adulthood, if one's circumstances change" (page 48). I wonder how much of the discomfort the bereaved feel comes from this uninvited and unpredictable change in identity, affect, values and behaviors? It certainly makes everyone else nervous.
I begin to see even more clearly how much issues of identity are critical for the bereaved. "Who are you?" seemed to be the question put to me for so long. "Who do you want me to be?" was my default answer for a while. It was such an adolescent response. Yet, that continues to make more sense to me as the days unfold. I was driven back to every unresolved emotional issue in my life. And for me, those issues still lived in my teen and tween years.
I wonder if that is true for others who lose spouses. Or was it just me...?
Such musings aside, it seems that we who support the bereaved must remember that many of the supports of personal identity are shaken or even destroyed in a significant loss. We must, in our support, find a balance between providing familiar markers and mileposts on the journey and locking the bereaved into a past-personality strait-jacket.
It is no easy task. That is why the bereaved must pick their supporters so carefully.