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How Loss Changes Us

... and how to begin living fully again.

Key points

  • The loss of a relationship, a job, a home, or a loved one may leave us with a sense of being lost.
  • Grief can involve losing part of our sense of self and identity.
  • Discovering and maintaining a new consistency in one’s sense of self helps us continue to live fully.

The loss of any self-defining aspect of our lives—a relationship, a job, a place called home, or the death of a loved one—may leave us with a sense of being lost and disconnected. Uncertainty, confusion, vulnerability, and disorientation can arise in response to the permanent, and perhaps unexpected, absence of a familiar person, place, or thing. We may experience the motivation for reconnection or restoration and any hopelessness associated with its futility as grief.

Our Sense of Self

Grief is not only a feeling of sadness or emptiness, but it can also involve losing part of our sense of self and our identity. Suddenly we are incomplete.

A sense of sameness, consistency, and continuity is intrinsic to the concept of a self (Nathanson, 1992). A significant loss can temporarily disrupt the sense of agency, continuity, and emotional vitality that some theorists trace to the personal, subjective awareness within a sense of self that has been formed through interpersonal contexts (Basten & Touyz, 2020).

So, where we live is not just a home but also a community. We are connected with others in our workplace. Our partnerships create a context in which we define ourselves. Thus, recollections of someone or something we have lost affect how we view ourselves just as much as our sense of self influences how we recall the past and what we once had (Wilson & Ross, 2003).

Like “sense of self,” the word “identity” conveys a sameness or oneness. We become the author of our identity as we create a life story; link together present, past, and future aspects of the self; and attach a sense of purpose to how we behave and think (McAdams, 1987). The characteristics that define us that set our identity are imbued with a quality of sameness through time.

Identity describes how we perceive ourselves and our commitments to beliefs and values (Basten & Touyz, 2020). Along with answering the basic question of who we are, identity also involves a sense of belonging and acceptance, in contrast to feelings of rejection or self-disgust (Plutchik, 2013). Loss may lead us to question the ways in which we belong and whether or not others will accept us, given the changes that have taken place in us and in our lives.

The concept of identity and the theory of identity formation that became a mainstay in psychology is primarily attributed to the work of Erik H. Erikson and based on his own disenfranchised loss—a loss that may not appear worthy of grief (Doka, 1989). In essence, Erikson’s exploration of identity was motivated by his longing to know his biological father, whose name his mother refused to reveal throughout Erikson’s life. She had given young Erik the surname of her second husband, and, until Erikson’s late adolescence, he believed that his stepfather was his biological father (Friedman, 1999). As an adult, searching for his own identity and an apparent longing to fill in significant missing autobiographical information, he changed his name from Erik Homburger to Erik Homburger Erikson.

Autobiographical Memories

Autobiographical memories are key to our sense of self and our identity. They involve the recollection of a sequence of personally significant experiences that provide knowledge of the self in the past that allows us to project ourselves into the future. Much of how we experience ourselves in the world involves the continuous autobiographical memories that make up our narrative self (Gallagher, 2000). Autobiographical memories enhance our feelings of personal consistency through time and play a role in constructing a personal identity (Wilson & Ross, 2003).

Some memories carry more emotional intensity and vividness throughout our lives. They play like movie scenes in our heads, and we tend to recall them repetitively as touchstones or reference points in our lives (Singer & Blagov, 2004). These self-defining memories become linked to other similar memories; together, they tend to be focused on an enduring concern, relate to an unresolved conflict, or give us insights into the kaleidoscopic picture of ourselves (Singer & Blagov, 2004).

These key episodes from childhood to late adulthood create the chapters of our story and illuminate the major themes in our lives (Singer, 2019; Singer & Blagov, 2004). They may involve our connection with others, times when we overcame adverse circumstances, and times when life events gave us insight or allowed us to make meaning of something.

Self-defining memories carry an emotional charge, adding an intense positive or negative value to our reconstruction of past events (Singer & Blagov, 2004). They can also unsettle our rational understanding of past experiences, and they can intensify the importance of similar current events (Singer & Blagov, 2004). Therefore, when we lose someone or something in our lives, our personal story is impacted.

People who are in a close relationship may experience a cognitive overlapping of their self-concepts, whereby features of the other are subsumed into one’s own self-knowledge, and they may even confuse the self with the close other (Mashek et al., 2003; Swann & Bosson, 2010). Thus, when our identity becomes tied to a close other, and then that person becomes absent from our life, we are left feeling as though part of our self is lost.

What do we do about this? Previous overlapping interpersonal experiences incorporated a loved one or a loved thing into our sense of self and identity, whereas novel solo experiences help us reestablish a separate sense of self. Discovering and maintaining a new consistency in one’s sense of self when a loved one moves on or dies or when our circumstances change helps us continue to live fully.

A challenge in our work (or in our new work), education, or in a unique endeavor becomes one’s own experience. Our identity is not just defined by someone or something we have loved and lost. While the loss may change us, it does not have to define us. We can learn to incorporate the loss into our sense of self and into our identity and find new ways to live our lives.

We may not know where we are or how to arrive at a new destination. But, rather than be lost, we must find ourselves amidst the rubble of our love that was lost.

Facebook/LinkedIn image: Ignacio Bustamante/Shutterstock


Basten, C., & Touyz, S. (2020). Sense of self: Its place in personality disturbance, psychopathology, and normal experience. Review of General Psy chology, 24(2), 159–171.

Doka, K. J. (1989). Disenfranchised grief: Recognizing hidden sorrow. Lexington Books.

Friedman, L. J. (1999). Identity’s architect: A biography of Erik H. Erikson. Scribner.

Gallagher, S. (2000). Philosophical conceptions of the self: Implications for cognitive science. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 4(1), 14–21. https://

Mashek, D. J., Aron, A., & Boncimino, M. (2003). Confusions of self with close others. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 29(3), 382–392.

McAdams, D. P. (1987). A life-story model of identity. In R. Hogan & W. H. Jones (Eds.), Perspectives in personality (Vol. 2, pp. 15–50). JAI Press.

Nathanson, D. L. (1992). Shame and pride: Affect, sex, and the birth of the self. W. W. Norton.

Plutchik, R. (2013). Emotion theory, research, and experience: Volume 5. Emotion, psychopathology, and psychotherapy. Academic Press.

Singer, J. A. (2019). Repetition is the scent of the hunt: A clinician’s application of narrative identity to a longitudinal life study. Qualitative Psychology, 6(2), 194–205.

Singer, J. A., & Blagov, P. (2004). The integrative function of narrative processing: Autobiographical memory, self-defining memories, and the life story of identity. In D. R. Beike, J. M. Lampinen, & D. A. Behrend (Eds.), The self and memory (pp. 117–138). Psychology Press.

Swann, W. B., Jr., & Bosson, J. K. (2010). Self and identity. In S. T. Fiske, D. T. Gilbert, & G. Lindzey (Eds.), Handbook of social psychology (pp. 589–628). Wiley. socpsy001016

Wilson, A. E., & Ross, M. (2003). The identity function of autobiographical memory: Time is on our side. Memory, 11(2), 137–149. 10.1080/741938210

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