In keeping with the theme of October, let’s talk about something scary: losing our identities along with the loss of our children. It’s downright terrifying. The person you now see in the mirror reflects the physical attributes you recognize, but also a hollowness where your personality once filled that physical body. It creates a sense of unease being unable to recognize yourself. “Who is that woman? She looks like me, but she’s not me. She looks angry. She looks worn. She looks empty.” I remember thinking those thoughts a few months after I lost my son, Owen, as I stared at the woman before me in the mirror.
At the time I felt so alone, so isolated. Surely, I was the only person in the world that felt like a stranger in my own body. Fast-forward a few years into my work with bereaved parents, I’ve come to learn that I was not alone in that jolting disconnect between my brain and body. I have counseled bereaved parents who are baffled by the same occurrence. If you’ve lost a child and are struggling with the personality changes you’re feeling, you’re not alone. You’re not weird. You’re a typical person coping with an atypical situation: the death of your child.
“So, what’s the deal with our personalities changing?” you may be asking right about now. Well, let me ask you this instead: After what we’ve experienced, how is it possible for our personalities not to change? It’s natural and expected for our personalities to evolve after every other life-changing event, such as marriage, graduation, and the birth of our children. Why would this event be any different, if not even more extreme, in its impact on our personalities? The difference is that in all the former situations the outcomes are viewed as “positive” (whatever that means) or welcomed changes. We invited those changes into our lives by choosing to get married, by choosing to graduate, and by choosing to bring a life into the world. So, in essence, we chose the life events that we believed would produce changes that would somehow improve our quality of life.
What we did not choose—and will most likely never choose—are life events that impact us in a hurtful and damaging way. Why would we, with sound minds, choose that for ourselves? We wouldn’t. Or, maybe I’m speaking for too many people here. I know I sure wouldn’t! I don’t want to be this damaged person that people treat like a teacup that occasionally gets taken out of the China cabinet only to be treated with such delicacy and care out of fear of being broken. That’s not the life I want to live. I chose to marry my rock star hunk-of-a-husband. He makes me belly laugh every single day and he straight up makes my personality ten times better. I chose to pursue my degrees because they get me to where I’m going. They make me more well-rounded. I chose to get pregnant and become a mom. It showed me a love I never knew and it created a greater appreciation in me for my own mom. What I didn’t choose was the loss of my sweet Owen. I also didn’t choose the personality changes that followed his death.
“What are the personality changes you’re talking about? Am I experiencing them? What if mine are different? Do they still count?” If these are questions you’re asking, hopefully I can provide some answers. One of the most common changes that individuals feel after child loss is isolation. You may be anxious or nauseated at the thought of having to discuss your loss and you’d rather stay home. You may pull away from friends who are not supportive and fear your grief. Certain people and places could be triggers for you as well, which can be super painful and slam you like a brick wall in public. The first time I’d ever experienced an anxiety attack was when my husband and I pulled into Home Depot’s parking lot. It wasn’t a trigger, necessarily, but it was right after the August 2016 Flood and I was petrified that I would run into someone and have to talk about Owen. I freaked out and barricaded myself in my husband’s truck. Needless to say, we didn’t go shopping that day… or many days after that. Hence, the isolation. Who wants to have an anxiety attack in public? Not this girl!
Another common change is that bereaved parents become hyperaware of potential threats to themselves, their partners, and their living children. (For bereaved moms who plan to become pregnant in the future, expect to be overprotective of your belly during your next pregnancy.) You’re not crazy, so don’t let people tell you so. Your child’s life was ripped away from you and you were not able to protect him or her. Our jobs as parents are to protect our children. When we are unable to, it feels like we failed. I know that’s how I felt. So, it makes sense that we would be hypervigilant in protecting other areas of our life, right? Our minds are rewiring in the correct way: When I don’t receive the intended outcome, I must make necessary changes. The problem is that child loss is most commonly out of the parents’ control. So, give your brain some grace because it’s trying to make the necessary changes to formulate an alternate outcome.
Social anxiety is a very common personality change after child loss. I experienced this change and I’ve spoken with numerous bereaved parents who’ve said it impacts their lives as well. (I will go into further detail on this topic in a later blog post. I feel it needs its own post to discuss it in full detail.) Another common personality change you may feel is being more direct with your emotions. Bereaved parents frequently say they drop the masks they’ve been wearing to please others and now their highest priorities are to do what’s best for their families. Other people can either get on board or get out of the way. It’s not done in a malicious way, but in a way of putting themselves and their families first rather than trying to please everybody all the time. (Plus, that gets tiring. Am I right?) You also may change jobs, take time off of work or school, or even decide to stay home for a while. You may become unaffectionate whereas before your loss you were extremely affectionate. You may just be straight up angry at anybody and everybody. I was that mom too!
Give yourself permission to experience the changes and remind yourself that how you are responding is not wrong. (If someone says otherwise, ask them to show you their references on bereavement, grief, and child loss. I’d be willing to bet they haven’t done any such research and that their advice was only given to ease their discomfort with your grieving process. *Steps off soapbox.*) Anywho, give yourself permission to explore what feels different: what you like, what you dislike, what makes you feel comforted, what makes you feel disrespected, etc. The key, however, is to take it one step further and to question why. Why did you dislike something? Why did you feel comforted by someone? Why did you feel disrespected in a particular situation? It’s not enough for us to recognize our feelings; we must further investigate why we’re experiencing those emotions as opposed to other possible emotions. When we learn more about our emotional responses and their meanings, we become more enlightened about who we are as individuals.
So, let me reiterate: None of these personality changes are wrong! Your brain is trying to rewire itself to cope with the outcome of the situation you’ve just experienced. These may not be permanent changes. You probably won’t be angry forever and you may not be scoping out every potential threat for the rest of your life. For now, however, these changes are what your brain is telling you is vital and necessary in keeping you safe. Allow yourself to feel safe. Within that safety, explore why you expressed those emotions. Be an investigator in your own mind so you can better understand the personality that fills the physical being standing before you in the mirror.
Heather Olivier, M.S., PLPC, NCC, is a counselor with Present Hope Counseling, LLC in Walker, LA and is currently working on her doctorate in Counselor Education and Supervision at the University of New Orleans.