The 38th Annual Association for Death Education and Counseling will be taking place April 13th-16th in Minneapolis, Minnesota. This year is particularly note-worthy, as this marks the 40th conference for the association.

While dealing with the loss of a loved one can be  traumatic, there are different types of loss that someone can experience. One of our authors who specializes in grief counseling and will be attending the conference herself, Ligia M. Houben MA, FT, FAAGC, CPC, author of Counseling Hispanics through Loss, Grief and Bereavement has written a piece for us about one such type, the loss of identity.

Loss of Identity

When we talk about losses people generally think about the death of a loved one.  However, there are other losses.  Which are these?  Among the most difficult and common losses people experience is the loss of identity.  For the last year I have been traveling with PESI presenting the seminar Transforming Grief and Loss, which is based on The 11 Principles of Transformation®.  In every single seminar, this type of loss come up as a common loss among adults.

When we are talking about the loss of identity, we may wonder, what is it? What does that mean? When do we experience the loss of identity? This can happen in different ways and it is basically when we lose the sense of who we are.

For example, when we are talking about the loss of a loved one, many people identify themselves as the spouse of someone. When they become a widow or a widower, who are they?  The same may happen with divorce. One is no longer a couple and that can also produce a sense of losing one’s identity.

Additionally, if one identifies oneself with their work and they lose their job, they also may have a sense of losing one’s identity.

One of the losses that is huge, is the loss of the homeland. This of course can apply to any kind of immigrants as they need to start a new life in a foreign country. The following extract is taken from my book Counseling Hispanics through Loss, Grief, and Bereavement. A Guide to Mental Health Professionals (pp 113-114).

Loss of or Diminished Self-Identity

The way the members of a culture identify it has an impact on how they perceive the world and how they behave. As therapists work with clients, this perspective becomes extremely relevant if the therapist is to understand the client and assist him or her in ways that encompass his or her culture.

As Thomas and Schwarzbaum (2006) observed, “Personal identity is cultural identity. Culture is a powerful organizer of people’s lives. How we view ourselves and who we are as individuals, cannot be separated from when, where, and how we grew up” (p. 1).

The concept of self is ingrained from the time we are born. Nobody has to tell us what our identity is. It is basically the concept one has of oneself and how this is manifested. We develop this sense of a persona by who we are individually, but the sense of being part of a group or particular culture also is part of one’s identity.

As Nydia Garcia-Preto observed, labeling diverse groups of people as Hispanics or Latinos takes away their nationality and “symbolizes a loss of identity” (McGoldrick, Giordano, & Garcia-Preto, 2005, p. 155). This could also happen when the person lives in the United States but experiences a disconnect with his or her new reality. With tears in her eyes, Maria contrasted her experience in the United States with  that  in  her native country:

“Here there are no familiar smells. There is a lack of history. Sometimes when I am walking I would get the smell of certain times of the year and would think of my country, Nicaragua. I remember for Christmastimes apples were imported, and we had a tradition to go shopping on Wednesdays: La familia gatuna a la luz de la luna va de compras [The feline family goes shopping under the moonlight]. Each time I smell apples at Christmastime those memories come to my mind immediately. To think that I have lost that is just unbearable. Although I am grateful to live here, there is still a lack of recognition, the feeling of being out of place, being a stranger. It is basically like . . . I am different. I don’t know who I am anymore.”

So let’s open our hearts and open our minds to the loss of identity as it can happen to all of us.  Even more, if you are going through a sense of not knowing who you are because you have lost your identity,  an exercise that can help you is just writing on top of the page “Who I’m I?” As you write it could give you a sense of who you are.  If you want to do it even deeper, you can write who you are NOW after experiencing the loss.  You may be surprised to realize that, as you process your grief and you transform that sense of losing your identity, you may become a person that who evolved, a person who has grown to be an amazing human being.

We can do this exercise with clients who go through losses…because we can all be an agent of transformation.