My guest today is a returning guest, our most popular guest Helen Keeling Neal. Helen is a licensed mental health counselor licensed marriage and family therapist and a nationally certified counselor. She’s also on the board here at growth through grief, help us guide our practice on all things concerning the mind. And she also has personal experience with grief and loss as a widow herself, her husband passing away when her children were only four and six years old.
And we’re here to talk about identity and how that changes the role that that plays through the grieving process and episode entitled, Who am I now?.
As widowers, and you as a widow, Helen, you know, we face an extreme identity crisis. I was a husband who was part of a quote unquote, power couple. My wife was not only my wife, mother to my two daughters, but also she was a business partner. And I know that a lot of widowers face this as well, what impact can losing your partner have on your identity overall?
Helen Keeling-Neal 1:55
I think the most challenging piece with a fractured identity is a fracture of identity with grief. It’s so multifaceted. So it’s not like changing a job and the identity of this job is now different, and I will assume the identity in this role. Your identity socially, spiritually, physically, financially, emotionally, all of it is just abruptly shifted, and there’s no ability to transition into that, no matter how long the person has been unwell.
No matter what you’ve been through, there is no ability to really assimilate a new identity until it’s over. Tom, it’s going from being a husband, a spouse to now being single, and we inherently see being single as actually marginalized culturally or socially. The coupleship is the goal set up by this culture, even though I don’t think that is how it should be.
If you are in a coupleship, we see that in church, we see that in a lot of different religious practices, coupleship is the ascribed goal. And so now you’ve lost the accomplishment, the social accomplishment, the cultural accomplishment in US culture.
And then there’s that peace with being a Dad, you’ve gone from being a Dad in a couple to now being a single dad, a sole parent. A single father is a whole new, different piece.
When we think about it, I think one of the biggest effects with loss and grief is not the fracture of the identity, but having to assume a different identity. When you didn’t want to, It’s been forced onto you.
So you’re assuming this new identity, and that can even extend to things like if you’ve lost your spouse, who was the caregiver and the nurturer of the children, then you’re being asked to assume a role, an identity of caregiver and nurturer of your children. That isn’t a normal or inherent identity that you’ve had before. You’re now assuming the identity of a cook, now you are a food nurturer and creator of meals that are healthy and appropriate, but that’s not an identity that you’ve had or internalized. So, you’re not only losing an identity in the couple-ship you had, you’re now forced to develop these new identities as well.
One of the things Helen that I experienced through the process of the disease, and then the passing of my wife, was my identity actually got crushed. As the man, as the fixer, as many of us would assume as our traditional roles, I couldn’t fix it. I couldn’t fix her disease.
And so that was the first big blow, was through the disease process, not even with the loss, my ego was really affected and crushed. My identity was crushed in that this confident business person, all of a sudden, faced the biggest battle and challenge, and couldn’t solve the problem.
Talk about that asI know this affects a lot of widowers that I talk to, and I am sure who go to counseling with you as well?
Yeah, it’s that powerlessness piece of not having any control over the situation. And for men in particular, they are taught to be problem solvers. They are wired that way, to be problem solvers. “I see this, let me look around it. Let me figure out how I’m going to manage it, how I’m going to change it, How I’m going to solve it. Okay, I have solved it. Now, I will move on.”
And that’s like this wonderful male trait that is so needed in our world. And yet here you are, presented with a problem that is unsolvable. And the self esteem hit around that, or sort of the shame that can happen if this is my role: This is my defined role This is my gender role in this and I could not accomplish what I needed to, that is really difficult. And it can lead to guilt, depression, remorse, shame, feelings of inadequacy.
It’s a very difficult thing. I particularly thought about you in this question, because you had mentioned to me before how painful it was to not be able to help. And in that position of powerlessness, it is just this really deep and painful feeling. And there’s no way around that other than through the feeling.
And Helen, admitting to the audience here. Part of my challenge with that too, was some past hurts, in the relationship I had with my father. And I know that there are many men out there who are nodding their heads up and down about this too. There were feelings of “less than” there.
Now, you’re experiencing the loss of your wife and the ego blow too, this helplessness now that you were unable to solve the problem with your wife, and then that’s bringing up all of these other past hurts.
Talk about that a little bit, and some of the work that might have to be done there.
Yeah, so there’s pieces of inadequacy. Not being able to meet the criteria that was set up, not being deemed good enough within the family unit growing up. So what we experienced as children and how we grow up in our emotional development, we see that play out later in grief. So that would be that lead piece that came up for you.
I know you went and did some counseling, and got some help around those past hurts, which is fantastic. And that really is the key. First off to recognize that this may not be only about this loss that’s happened here, it may be about all of this other stuff that you’ve gone through in your childhood development. All of that low self esteem that may have been wired, that you were never able to meet Dad’s “good enough” or Mom’s “good enough” or siblings “good enough”, grandparents, whatever the family member or person might be. It does tend to come up and play out after such a big loss like this. So that’s a really wise thing, Tom, to bring that into the conversation, because so often, it’s easy to just mono-focus on the loss. When the loss is also a trigger for all this stuff that’s underneath,
I completely agree. Without the professional counselingI didn’t know how to work at the grief and the direct feelings of inadequacy through that loss, and reconcile that. And then I was still dealing with all these other feelings that I wasn’t even in touch with, that would bubble up from the trigger. Until I started working on those, Helen, it really wasn’t a problem that I could alone solve.
So very, very good to suggest professional help, because I know that until I had some tools, first of all the awareness, that it wasn’t just this loss of life, that there were these other hurts that were adding up in a compound way. That and then tools on how to address the compound hurts and feelings and deal with that, were really important.
As you were talking through the new roles that we’re assuming, we still have many of the old roles, and now these are all added on top. And I know for you it was the same way. For me, all of a sudden, I found that I still had to travel for business. But now I’ve got to prepare the food for my daughters, if I was going out of town for a few days, I had to go to school events and fundraisers. There were still those dinners that I was invited to. In a lot of those areas, particularly with the school events, the fundraisers, the couple dinners, I really felt out of place without my partner thereHow do you deal with social situations that you’ve attended prior with your partner?
You know, this is the one area where I feel like it just sucks when you lose your spouse, because there is nothing that makes you feel more resoundingly lonely, than going to something that you used to go to with your partner, and having to do it by yourself. Having to attend the PTA stuff, or whatever school function which is inherently a partnership kind of event is really difficult.
I think one of the things to really lean into is remembering that you don’t have to set yourself up for sadness. You don’t have to go to every event. You can have discretion about what you’re going to choose, because it can just make you feel so much worse. So if you think it’s something that really is intolerable, and it’s going to make you feel even worse, and it’s not going to affect your kids, and it’s not gonna affect the outcome of anything, give yourself some grace to exit and not do it. You don’t have to show up for everything, the way that your partner might have shown up for everything. It’s okay to let some things slide.
And then when you’re getting together with couples, maybe you’re the only solo person now when there’s this for other couples, in your regular couple thing. I think it’s important to talk about your spouse, it’s important to say things like, “You know what, Judy would have really loved this dish”. Yeah, “Judy really loved that piece of artwork” It’s important to say that this is really difficult for me to be here without her. And I’m just gonna say that out loud, because I love you guys. And I want to keep coming. But it’s hard right now to be without her. But I’m glad you keep inviting me and I want to keep coming. And I want to be able to talk about her.
When it came to the school events, particularly my youngest daughter, I wasn’t that involved, because I felt so awkward. While I was out slaying the dragons in the business world, she was home, not only doing the school events, but using her marketing background to create a lot of the promotional content for those events. She was amazing when it came to the school and fundraisers and doing extra work for those.
You can feel guilty if you don’t go, but you feel uncomfortable when you go. For the youngest daughter, I felt like she missed out by me not being as involved and not participating and not going.
Talk about that a little bit, and ways to maybe combat the guilt identity that some of us take on?
We can’t make up for the loss of a parent. No matter how hard, or how much you would push through being uncomfortable. You cannot replace that parent, it is just not possible. It’s not who we are. They were them. We are us. Your skill set is your skill set, and their skill set was their skill set.
So I think it’s about again, leaning into knowing that you did the absolute best you could at that time. And that’s all you could do, and not doing inside one’s own head. That piece we talked about, the expectations that could never be met, that were unrealistic. We internalize that and play that narrative out inside our head. So feeling guilty or feeling not good enough or feeling like your daughter missed out because of you. That’s all mapped onto that same self-esteem piece of never being good enough for Dad or Mom and feeling inadequate.
Even though I’ve gone to counseling, I still have plenty of work to do.
Don’t we all? Yes,
Absolutely. So identity, we used to be “a couple”. We used to be “a husband”. We used to be a partner and a joint parent. Now we are a sole parent, now alone, and that feeling of loneliness can really take over.
I see that a lot of widowers can get really stuck in thinking that they have to be alone. They almost as an identity say “I’m a widower, and I now need to be alone, and I need to suffer, because of the loss of my wife, she can’t be here. So I need to suffer alone”. Talk about that a And thet identity that we can take as to being the widower or being the victim.
Yeah, I think there’s potentially a few things going on with that. When we look at the stages of grief, we’ve got denial, bargaining, anger, depression, acceptance, and they’re never linear. And the loneliness fits in the Depression piece.
But I think also a little bit of what you’re touching on is survivor’s guilt and how difficult it can be to feel deserving of being here still when your spouse is not. Sometimes for some people, they wish it was them who would pass. They wish they could take that death on themselves, because they feel so guilty about being here, and so unable to move on in life. Not move away from the person lost, but move on to continue in living.
So when I hear that piece about the guilt of being here, I equate that as maybe one of the symptoms of a major depressive disorder that’s going on with someone that they might be really, really having a difficult time.
And also, I would do exactly what you’ve talked about, I would explore if there were any other layers underneath that grief, that were informing the guilt and depression. That was keeping them attached to survivor’s guilt, or some kind of being in a really dark hole, something in addition to that piece.
Loneliness and that isolation, self isolation can be one thing, cutting oneself off from peers. And that could be out of that guilt. Out of it just being too difficult to interact. Maybe the surviving partner was the introvert, and the deceased partner was the extrovert and was the social calendar person. So for the introvert, they managed and booked the social calendar.
We talk about how there are rocks and balloons, and every rock needs a balloon, and every balloon needs a rock. And so maybe if you’re a rock and you’ve lost your balloon that gets you up off the couch and out into social situations, you don’t have the ability to do that for yourself, especially if you’re weighed down in grief. And that’s where the support system is so key. And what I see a lot of is, you know, the line of lasagna, and stuffed shells goes away after about six months. That’s when church friends, social groups, relatives really need to lean back in to see how someone’s doing, how is it going at the end of the year, because honestly, it can get worse. At the end of year two can be worse because the numbness goes away. And the feelings really come up. So especially for introverted people who are not going to tell you how they’re feeling, they’re not going to go out and about and get connected with the community or naturally want the support system to come in. Come in and get them out.
For the introvert, you’re not seeing the posts, you’re not seeing that person around much. They’ve actually gone into a shell and they need to be brought out. So just because they’re not out there doesn’t mean that they are all better now and don’t need that help. In fact, they need it more than ever.
And I see a lot of those characteristics Helen that I described. I see it more with those widowers who’ve lost their spouse quickly. So survivor’s guilt is one aspect to look at and to research some more on the characteristics of that, and maybe even talk to your counselor or therapist about that.
And I think there’s a difference if there are children in a family that have needs. This tends to be, as difficult as it is because they’ve lost a parent, it is something that will keep a widower or widow going,
Now, we have some identity that’s being put on us in the new roles. We have our old identity, which in some ways might be crumbling a bit, and is very fragile.
Right now, for me, it was some of my old identity which I had to dive back into. But I really wanted to change because I couldn’t do all these other new roles, and maintain the level I needed with my prior roles. And for a lot of men, they now struggle with balancing these two things of being a caregiver for their children, or whatever new identity they’re taking on, and holding up their old identity of the breadwinner, etc. Their “give a damn” is now turned off, and they may not care about the old roles as much as they did prior to loss. How do you go about recalibrating, and really finding a better new identity?
You know, there’s a certain amount of survival that happens. After a loss like that, you really are in survival mode with this changing identity. It’s like, “oh, fuck, who am I now? How am I going to do this? This is on me, how am I ever going to do it? I’m not built this way, I was part of a power couple leading this business. Now I have to cook these meals and go to the school events, and how can I possibly do it all?”
And so I think it’s about taking on the pieces that you know, you can handle, and then recruiting support to bring in other people who can assume the other identity pieces and roles for your family. If you can, again, it’s delegating and it’s resourcing. If you have the funds, and you want to resource in a meal service, you do that, and then you don’t have to assume the identity of a chef. If you need somebody who is going to report back the PTA piece, recruit a school friend’s parent that can do that piece. So it’s not feeling like you have to assume all of this new identity.
And it’s settling in and giving yourself space to become who you need to be, versus who you’re expected to be, or demanded to be, or think you should be. It’s defining one’s own identity. And men inherently take on what we all do, the roles become the internalized identity. And the primary roles are hunter gatherer, Hunter, Slayer of beasts and provider of meat. He who makes the money. He who assumes the role of the protector. He who is in charge of the fixing.
Not for everybody, but that’s sort of culturally what’s assigned. So we tend to take on what’s assigned. And so if you’re the wage earner, if you’re the financial guy, who, particularly with you, you were financially quite successful, then now you have to lower that element in importance. This can be a grief element, a grief within a grief, with having to let go of that.
So you actually have to grieve the loss of identity along with grieving the loss of your spouse. And I remember this, I had to make a choice between making a really good income or being present for my kids. And having a moderate to shitty income for a period of time until they were older. Because I wasn’t willing to just hand them off to babysitters all the time. Yep. I had to make that trade. I made the decision to not live financially well for a period of time. Because I wanted to be there for my kids. Shitty decisions you have to make, and a wish that nobody ever had to make those kinds of decisions. But it’s all part of it. And so it’s choosing the identity. Not doing it by default.
And I do think that so many men do fall into overachievement in this area, and women as well, where the widower says, “You know what society expects me to be this way. I’m going to be this kind of a widower for the community to see. I’m going to be this kind of widower for my kids to see. I’m not going to make them feel like I’m the sole parent. Now, I’m going to make them feel like they still have two not just one, and I’m going to assume all of those rules. And then there is the work as well, I’m not going to let the work part fail. I’ve got people that depend on me, I’m going to take that on”.
And before you know it, you have the weight of all of these different worlds and expectations on you. And it could be overwhelming. I know that I was completely overwhelmed. I was so exhausted Helen from all of the different expectations, and masks that I was wearing, and the incongruity of all of that really weighed on me. How do you get out of it?
One of the things you said is just say no to some of it, right? You have to thoughtfully say, “Look, I’m not going to take all this on, I’m not going to be guilted into it from my internal voice. I’m not guilted into it from external voices and all of the expectations that are placed on me. And I think that what you’re saying is help can be a great benefit, delegating it to other people.
But as men, some of us are good delegators, but the majority, like myself, I tend not to be a great delegator.
This delegating and this asking for help, they are the same thing. And generally men don’t ask for help. Women don’t ask for help, either. We’re all wired to think we should be able to do it all ourselves. And the truth is, we can’t.
And the good news is that people are very loving, they want to help. They really do. And when there’s been a loss like this, of this kind of magnitude, people are just literally waiting to be asked to help. They offer help.” If there’s anything I can do to help please let me know”. They mean it. “Could you pick my kids up from so and so? Would you pick up a cake so we can take it for the Fall Festival? Can you come over and be with the kids while I go do this”. People want to help, so take them up on it. There’s that piece of giving and receiving, that it’s one and the same, and to deny either is to deny someone pleasure or joy, Letting people help you, and helps them..
So Helen, we’ve gotten through the crisis, we’ve marshaled some therapy to quiet the internal voices. We’re not listening externally, we’re taking on just what we think we need to take on. But now we need to not just assume the identities of survival. But now assume a new identity right? A 2.0 version of ourselves. How do you recommend men go about doing that, to finding that new 2.0, that new purpose?
I can recount a little bit of my story, of how I got here after five years into my journey. But it really took a while, and wasn’t exactly a clean, linear process by any means. I’m hoping you know, the secret sauce, the directions to get us to 2.0 much cleaner and quicker?
Well, no, there is no secret sauce. And there’s no linear process.
So here’s what I know about you. You focused first on your health and wellness, putting down the alcohol and doing something differently in your life.
You can think of the journey as if we’re making a stew, and there are pieces of you that are still there, of who you are, Tom when Judy was alive, Tom, when Judy was ill, and Tom after Judy passed, and Tom now. It’s all a smorgasbord. So we don’t totally give up everything regarding our original and transitional identities.
We may just bring back in the pieces that best serve and help us feel good about who we are today. So for you, one of those things is being a high achiever. It’s what we’re doing right now that’s part of you helping people. You’re someone who likes to help people in this journey. Put together your grief group, which is so helpful for so many men and which I really recommend to anybody who has lost a spouse, reach out to you about your male grief group. Super important, really good.
It’s also assuming the writing role that you had before in your work world. And it doesn’t necessarily happen quickly because we are all evolving identities over time.
For example, I work with people who retire and let me tell you that’s not a fractured identity, that’s a transition identity. And that will mess people up. It can be really difficult for people who have been at the top of a game working, feeling valued in that way to then go from, what is my role? And who am I now? It’s sort of the opposite, as the roles multiply after loss. Whereas in retirement, the old roles go away.
So there is no magic solution that is just about putting one foot in front of the other and trying to be mindful and aware of what’s going on. When to say no, when to say yes,
There’s three strands that need to be worked on: body, mind, and spirit. And they’re intertwined. And if you get them working together, there’s nothing that can break those, those three strands wound together.
For me, it was body first, I needed to heal that. it was depleted, it was worn out, it was adrenal fatigued, it was overweight, by 60 to 70 pounds, I was an alcoholic at that time. I was not well.
So if I didn’t get that in order, my wellness, I was going to be sick and maybe not be around in two years, three years, five years, and then my kids would have had two losses.
So everything for me was “okay, I can start this journey. Even though there’s all these other things on me, I need to at least prioritize these couple of little changes, these couple of little steps, first and foremost for myself”. Because as the caretaker, and there were certainly other people helping, it wasn’t me by any means being the only one, but it still took a lot out of me physically, and so I put the physical healing first.
And then I weaved in the mental of “Okay, now that I’m physically taking a few steps, how do I get mentally attuned to a mindset that would help me to achieve”. And that’s where the consumption of the growth mindset books and the podcasts and everything around growth occurred. I started listening to people who had gone through similar challenges in all kinds of different areas, physical trauma, mental trauma, childhood trauma, and how they overcame that to achieve amazing things. Regardless of field of expertise, what was the mindset that it took them to get where they achieved great things. There’s a couple of Navy Seals, Chris Goggins being one of them. Looking at their journey of how they grew up, and how they became so physically adept and mentally adept at what it is they do. So I took on an almost Seal growth mindset.
And then spirit, for me, this was the last piece. I almost wish it was what I worked on earlier, that I had my spiritual senses and understood, whether it be kind of the ethereal spirituality of the Power of Now and things like that from Tolle, or the power of forgiveness and transcendence that you get from Jesus and the Christian Church. There are so many amazing elements in the spirit that really help the mindset, not just be growth oriented, but also be present and be forgiving, and some of the other superpowers that I was able to obtain with that.
And so those three are way more advanced today, and way stronger than they were right after the loss. But it took one of those, just working on one and just a couple of steps for me literally. it was making my bed the day after Judy passed, something she did, that I now had to do. And I’ve done it every day since whether I’m in a hotel, whether I’m at a retreat, at home… and it is something that I know that gives me that sense of accomplishment every day right from the beginning.
Yeah, that’s huge. I love what you just said about the trifecta right there. And for you the physical piece was the launch that gave you the foundation to go into the others, and for other people, it may be the emotional piece first, or it may be the spiritual connection they have that will launch them into the emotional and then the physical or from the emotional, to the spiritual, then the physical. Yes, that’s balance. That’s taking those identity pieces and creating a cohesion that has a foundation of body, mind and spirit to support you and moving forward in life and dealing with everything that overwhelms you, and helps you cope so that everything gets a little less overwhelming.
Now that’s the positives of identity, we also have ego, and that can hold us back. Talk about the difference between the two. I’m a layperson. So I don’t understand quite the difference and how ego might be the thing that holds us back?
Yeah, well, we’ve got a couple of versions on what ego is.
Ego comes from Freud psychoanalysis, we’ve got the ID, the EGO and the SUPEREGO. Freud believed that everybody was born with the ID, the ID is the natural driver, the desires, the impulses, it’s kind of the “gimme, gimme, gimme, I want it now” that we’re born with.
Then, at around age three, is when the EGO starts to develop. And the EGO according to psychoanalysis is the voice of reason.
The SUPEREGO develops around age five, that’s the internalized information from parents, role models, culture, society, and it’s the perfectionist. “oh, no, you can’t do that. That’s terrible”.
So on the one hand, the ID is like, “Oh, give me that whole entire piece of cake”. And then on the other hand, you’ve got the SUPEREGO, which is, “that’s terrible, you can’t have the whole piece of cake”. And then in the middle, the EGO is supposed to mediate between the two.
So those are the ego states, according to Freud.
Now what we have in pop culture, it’s changed a little bit. So the interpretation has gone into, if someone has a big ego, an overinflated ego, it means they’re overconfident. They think too much of themselves are kind of up there high and mighty. Or if someone has a low ego or a lack of ego, they might have shame, they might be embarrassed, they feel badly about themselves, they might have low self esteem.
So a healthy ego state is the one that I’ve talked about coming from Freud. And then in pop culture we see that overinflated ego, which is probably when someone is indulging the ID, a little more. So we see this as the maladaptive behaviors like going out and getting drunk, hooking up.
Someone who seems to be coming from a state of big ego, like they’ve got it all going on, it can also mean that maybe they are covering up a little bit of how poorly they feel underneath And it’s looking like bravado.
It’s good to get a bigger understanding of this. And I think that understanding the three elements, the ID, the EGO, and the SUPEREFO of Freudian psychology is important.
You want to make sure that the EGO is in charge. That the ID isn’t running rampant, so you’re not overindulgent, not fueling the bad behavior, not reacting in anger. You think that maybe now it’s your time. You were giving for everyone else. And all of a sudden, you become that indulgent, bad parent or bad friend, or just bad person in general, not caring about who you’re hurting and what you’re saying and everything else.
On the other hand, you could go into SUPEREGO mode, which is how I felt like I was manifesting more of the time. I was striving to be perfect, and meanwhile being maybe dramatically imperfect as a result of trying to be everything to everybody, which is the other state.
So I think understanding those three is really important and the balance between them as you try to get a handle on the new identity that you’re evolving into.
Yeah, I think we could equate maybe the inflated ego states with an ID-ish kind of behavior and then the low ego state with the SUPEREGO shaming and internalized behavior.
I do want to tweak the bad behavior term a little bit into adaptive and maladaptive. When people are doing maladaptive behaviors, they’re just trying to get a need met. A need for company,, a need for respite, a need for out their feelings. Yeah. So, we want to look at them as maladaptive, and the term “bad” might not be helpful.
Indeed, we don’t want to use judgment words like, bad behavior. I completely agree. Because what is bad to someone and good to someone else?
Helen, what’s the one piece of advice you’d like to leave with our widowers, our growth warriors with today about identity?
Yeah. I think with Identity, my advice would be to. Take your time, and don’t overthink it.
You will evolve into a new person. We all do as we go throughout life. So be kind. Give yourself grace and leverage resources when people ask you what they can do to help, make a list. And take them up on it.
I agree. And then the only thing I would add to it is, don’t be afraid to take one or two steps out there and towards a new identity and new goals, and healing. There’s a lot of survival that you’re going to go through. But at the same time, that doesn’t mean you can’t exercise some self-care. After all, if you don’t put your oxygen mask on first, you’re not going to be useful to anyone else, your children or anyone around you.
And so you do not need to take on all these other identities and all these roles, doing everything and just forget about yourself completely. There is space in there to put on your oxygen mask first.