Identity death

Mary Lou Heater
3 min readAug 7, 2021

It happened in a matter of weeks. Widow. Jobless. Old. One Sunday night in June 2016, my husband of 40 years died from respiratory failure. The following Thursday, the clinic where I work closed and I was out of work. TheMWC Deathnext Tuesday, I turned 65 and became a senior citizen. Talk about identity theft. I was no longer wife, employee or young-ish. Not a group joiner, church goer, or parent, there was no community of folks to offer solace and tell me things would be okay. Never a dependent person, I now wanted someone to deal with probate court, the Texas Workforce Commission, and the Social Security Administration. I retreated and made my life small. Stayed close to home but when I did go out, I carried two sets of keys. I realized it was the first time in my life I was living alone. I went from parents to husband to husband. Who would let me in if I locked myself out? Poohbert, our dog? Entering an existential crisis, I floundered in purposelessness and fear. Who was I now? As a society, we tend to tie our identity to our roles, titles, and age. In the fog of grief, I saw only a unmarried, NJMF, elderly woman. Irrelevant. Invisible, Inconsequential.

Although not a remembrance that came into my consciousness any time soon after that month of June, it finally filtered in what I have told countless people over time. Viktor Frankl, having survived the Holocaust, at one point listed all the things he had had in his life, crossed off what was lost, and built his life on what was left. But I didn’t want so much to build as to maintain. I had achieved a contented life for the most part; choices made and followed — not always ideal — but in the end worth it. Although, grief, mourning, and loss have not been strangers to me, this time I was overwhelmed, bordering on pathological, if not suicidal. Telling myself — counting my blessings so to speak — I had many things left in my life (all of Maslow’s basics — plus a sister, brother, friends, cousins, and former colleagues as well as an advanced degree) didn’t cut it. I needed help. At one point I posted the John Mellencamp lyric on my Facebook page, “life goes on long after the thrill of living has gone.” But having pursued and advocated for higher education all my life, I inevitably chose to go back to school. Enrolling in a university-based grief specialist certification program, my goal was, in time, to be able to help others someday as well as myself. In essence what I learned was there is no one way to grieve, no time limit, and it comes in waves that usually get smaller and less frequent over time. To honor what…

Mary Lou Heater

Doctor of Nursing Practice specializing in adult mental heath, aging and addictions. Writer, lover of words, and ideas.