Life as a Widower

A young widowed father opening up about living with loss

changed personality

Over the past few days two different interactions with two different people on two completely different topics have led me to the same conclusion – grief has the potential to completely change a person’s personality.

The first thing that got me thinking along these lines was a text message from an old friend and colleague from an agency where I used to work. ‘Will we be seeing you any time soon?’ she asked after several other exchanges. Given the depth of consideration I gave to her question for a long time after I’d actually replied, my response seemed rather shallow. ‘I’d love to see everyone at some point’ was pretty much all I said. But it wasn’t all I thought.

I tried to picture myself walking into the office we used to share but I couldn’t see it happening. I tried to imagine myself arranging to meet up for drinks with her and our other old workmates and wasn’t able to picture the scene. I couldn’t work out the right timing or the appropriate occasion to see everyone again. Worse still I didn’t feel comfortable with the idea; I’d chickened out of meeting up even before I’d checked my diary, and she hadn’t even suggested a date yet.

This might not sound like a big deal to some – not finding time to say hi to some people I used to work with at some point in the future – but to me it is. I worked at this place twice: I left once and they still thought enough of me to have me back; and when I did go back a second time, I left again and they still thought enough of me to throw a great leaving do, buy me an excellent present, and come to my wife’s funeral when she died. They gave me my first job out of uni, put up with my early-20s tantrums (and hangovers), bought champagne to toast my wedding day, sent gifts for my son when he was born and sent even more when his mum was killed. They are my friends. How strange then that I can’t even imagine meeting up with old mates who have, through their own continued affections, told me that I don’t need to feel bad about leaving them not once but twice. You’d have to be Elizabeth Taylor or Richard Burton to get away with that sort of behaviour outside of the workplace.

The second thing that led me to think about how grief can affect a bereaved person’s character was a conversation with my father-in-law. We discussed how hard it is to ‘get on with your life’ when losing a loved one has so dramatically changed what that life once was. It’s inevitable that a person’s death will most affect those closest to them in life: the friends who were like family; the father who spoke to his daughter almost every day; the mother who came to stay every week; the older brother who had cared for his little sister his whole life; the child who loved his mother more than anyone else in the world; the husband whose very existence made more sense when he met this amazing girl whose life is now no more.

For others life eventually goes on. My life, on the other hand, feels like it has gone on pause. And that can be hard to handle when other people seem to live in fast forward. It’s Christmas again soon and the conversation has turned to food, decorations, gifts and nights out, but I can’t seem to switch on. I just don’t care. I used to love Christmas but now I feel completely indifferent about it. In fact, just this week I realised that I’ve spent all year gearing up towards calendar dates that ultimately don’t matter – a series of ‘firsts’ since my wife’s death including birthdays and anniversaries – and Christmas is just another. I just don’t think that I need to be reminded every day for the next month that Christmas is coming because I already know. And I’m as excited about it as the turkeys waiting to be slaughtered. I don’t begrudge anyone else’s fun at all, I just don’t feel much like being a part of it.

And I think this is all because my personality has changed. I may still be the person I was before but I’m not the same. I’ve lost my confidence. As coincidence would have it I bumped into an ex-colleague from the same agency I mentioned earlier just before concluding this post and I broke out into a sweat because I was at a loss for what to say. Somehow I feel unable how to succinctly answer life’s most common question, How are you?

I’ve lost my desire to socialise. I instinctively conclude social interactions with an always well-intentioned but generally unfulfilled future arrangement.

I’ve lost the ability to be able to contribute to light conversations about things that now feel irrelevant to me. I can’t show enthusiasm for topics that don’t matter to me anymore, and I just can’t act content when I’m not.

I’m often bad tempered. I used to reserve my sulky behaviour for very special occasions but these days I’ve got a face on me most of the time. And when I am in a bad mood I mostly just want to get on with it without being disturbed.

And I guess this is all because I’m changed, because I’m hurting and because I’ve just realised that I’m probably deeply traumatised by what happened last November. Anxiety that I wasn’t even aware that I had probably makes me live my life in a subconscious state of fear rather than joy, as I did before.

I suppose people often want to try to treat bereaved people the same as they did before their loss. They might even want them to be the same because in losing the personality that they once loved, they are somewhat bereaved too. I’m as disappointed as the next person that I’ve had to said goodbye to the old me because I used to really know how to enjoy myself. But right now I don’t really feel like much fun at all. And what I feel like even less is pretending to be something I’m not.

I’ve learned a lot about myself in the last week or so and I’ve learned something about others too. It’s nice when they get in touch out of the blue to ask how you’re doing. Even at times when you don’t want to be wanted sometimes it’s still nice to feel wanted.

And so the many contradictions of grief continue…

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21 comments on “changed personality

  1. Ben Dyke
    November 22, 2013

    Thank u Ben, as always, for articulating so well, what life is like when suffering the loss of a wife and the mother of your kids. Thank you for being honest and vulnerable and helping people like me who aren’t so articulate or able to explain, so that we feel valued in our pain, and understood. I ache with the pain and the effects of it on my personality and life and the discord it has caused in most of my relationships since Hannah died, and I am left longing even more for the one person who just got me, loved me and understood and accepted me. The wonderful joy for me of a beautiful caring new wife and best friend stands apart in a separate cup. It doesn’t fill up or clean or heal the other cup and that’s not something most people outside this experience can really truly understand.

  2. belle365.co.uk
    November 22, 2013

    I’ve been following your blog for some months now, ever since my friend lost her boyfriend to a car accident, and I see so much of what you talk about in her emotions and actions. It would be flippant to say ‘one day you will enjoy Christmas again’ because of course you may not. But, as the previous comment on this post so beautifully articulates, hopefully one day you will find that ‘other cup’ into which you can begin to build new memories and a new life for the future. Your grief is still so raw-a year is no time at all to truly digest the loss of a life partner so it’s no wonder you feel no enthusiasm for social engagements. In time that may come back-grief alters a person, yes, but it can never entirely erase who you were before. He’s still there, he’s just hurting. Xx p.s your son is beautiful by the way

  3. Ria
    November 22, 2013

    Thank you Ben for this post. While I have not suffered the loss of my spouse I have recently experienced the horrendous pain of losing my 18 month old son to unknown causes. My only child at the time. I feel like the old me died with my son and I will never be that person again. I also miss the “old me”. I follow your blog and it helps to remind me that my feelings are normal and I’m not going crazy. Thank you so much for your honesty.

  4. Alex James
    November 22, 2013

    Hi Ben
    I’ve been reading your blogs , walking behind you in a way and each time feeling a mixture of things ….I like your honesty , your ability to communicate how it really is for you and I’m certain that anyone walking a similar path will find connections and affirmations through what you say that they aren’t alone , going crazy or grieving the ‘wrong’ way. Truth is in my experience there isn’t a right or wrong way only the way of each person towards some place of manageability that fits for them. I
    hope you’ll continue to write and that your readers will continue to find inspiration from your words as I wrote to you in the beginning it’s about waking each day breathing in and out and putting one foot in front of the other . I’d really like to talk to you at some stage contact me at alexjames@bereavement.co.uk wwwbereavement.co.uk

  5. sharrongordonsharron gordon
    November 22, 2013

    Just be who you want to be Ben … dont live by other peoples expectations x

  6. Celia Marszal Iannelli
    November 22, 2013

    Well said as always. This is the second time I am on this journey two husbands dead makes no difference one would think i know the road nope. Twisting and turning up down my world us upended again. The indifference you write about I am in that indifferent place too. Planning a trip see my kids on the West coast and I feel nothing,,, these are my sons my beautiful sons…….I am uncomfortable with leaving the sanctuary my home and forced to be with people all day…I do work and
    It’s fine when I am there but at the end of the day I can be as sad indifferent angry etc. Your posts give me pause to reflect on this “second time around”

  7. Sarah
    November 22, 2013

    I know exactly how you feel. I lost my husband almost a yr ago, we were both 36. I really hate that others get to go on with their lives…and mine too is on pause…but I also know it is not fair and of course life goes on. I used to love Christmas, my husband loved watching me get so excited every year as the decorations went up all around and my annual countdown began…not this year. I would like to forget it all together…especially as he died a couple of weeks before Christmas last year. I really enjoy your blog…you are doing a wonderful job getting through all of this. Just remember, there is no timeline, each person’s grief is uniquely their own…

  8. Debbie Hoare
    November 22, 2013

    I have to say i completely identify with everything you’ve said , and for me Xmas is now really about Hal my son , and will probably be about Jackson for you …seeing him enjoy it is really the only pleasure that i get out of it and im now 6 yrs on . If anything i tend to shy away from familly gatherings / friends aswell particularly at this time of year as its such a stark reminder of what i no longer have , Ive become ever so self sufficient ,. i guess one day as another post earlier on this thread says when there is that other cup which you can fill up with memories things might change, but for me at the moment i cant imagine that happening , Nor do i think i will ever feel compensated by that , it will be just another stage of my life .

  9. Paul R
    November 22, 2013

    Next week it will be 19 months since my wife died. For me month thirteen was my “Twilight Zone” month. Emotionally it was like being in the first few months of grief. But the unreality of not being able to remember what I had done the year before really bothered me.
    I agree that grief can change your personality. Laura was always the out going, meeter and greeter of people. I’ve had to take on that role now, if I’m to meet new people. And while it was difficult at first, now I find that I enjoy meeting new people and talking with them. But I think the changes are out of necessity. Maybe your switch in the opposite direction is because you need more time alone and with Jackson to complete your healing.
    I will say that I think I have progressed more in these last 6 months, than during the first 13 months of grief.

  10. Luci
    November 22, 2013

    I feel exactly the same as you…..and I’ m divorced. Life circumstances change us more than we understand. Bereavement and other psychological fractures rarely heal…..but I’m told there’s a blessing in there somewhere.

  11. Bill Wright
    November 22, 2013

    Ben, I’m so sorry to hear that life seems to be getting tougher for you. I read Paul R’s 13th month/twilight zone comments with interest, seems to make sense, although appreciate there is no set template for experiencing grief, the year landmark has to be significant. I’ll be better qualified to back that up in January though.

    Somebody once left a comment on this blog that life is no longer in Technicolor, but monochrome. This analogy has stuck with me, it’s so in the money.

    I hope you find yourself in a place soon where you can entertain the notion of being sociable with your oldest mates, where there is no perceived pressure to ‘perform’.

    • lifeasawidower.com
      November 22, 2013

      To be honest I do hang out with my oldest mates and I love that time because they’re amazing. It’s more that I don’t feel like socialising all the time because I need time to sulk.

      • Bill Wright
        November 22, 2013

        Yep, I hear you. I’m more efficient with my social time now, I focus on just my closest mates and a very good new friend I met at a support group. I know there are a couple of social streams that might feel a little hurt by my absence, but I don’t have the energy for the time being.

  12. lesley
    November 22, 2013

    Your comment about how you used to reseve sulky behaviours for special days made me laugh out loud. I have had a bad day today and have been spectacularly grumpy at work. people were stressing over possible redundancies and some were in tears. It made me so angry. I wanted to shout that it is nothing compared to losing a loved one. I calmed down when I got home and reflected on my behaviour. I feel bad about how I behaved but I feel angry that no one understands that 14 months on from my brothers death I am still grieving. What is important to others and was once important to me no longer is.

  13. awomansthoughtson
    November 23, 2013

    Ben, your post is what I too have learned in the past week. I returned this October only ten months after losing my soul mate. I returned to a profession, dance, which constantly asks yourself to crises and question who you are and what your body is doing. I broke down Thursday just gone, in a class where the lecture asked us to dance in the dark and say something to someone. I started to realise in those few moments of dancing in the dark and crying. That this was the real me, moving through time but crumbling on the inside. It felt liberating for once to be able to be true to myself.
    Thank you for your post.

  14. sarah pointer
    November 25, 2013

    Just read this Ben. feeling like i should be so much better but again having no other option but to work my way out of another painful month. twilight zone indeed. running away from the “how are you” situations because i cannot form the words and if i could, they really wouldn’t want to know. I know what you write is a response and may not give you much comfort but please know that you are shining a light into alot of people’s darkness x

  15. lottiesc
    November 25, 2013

    I know people have already said it to you many a times and yet I will again! Be you, be true to you, live life as YOU want to and let others fit in for now. IF you have the energy, perhaps tell them so they can have an incline of understanding how you feel/are. I found that very helpful when I finally got to it – so many people simply do not understand and the worst of it all is, many think it’s just about time and about “getting over” this stage in our lives and of course we know, that’s not at all the case. Big hugs for you and once again hat off to your openness, sharing and all what you actually give to such a massive community out there! And here’s a big hug too!!

  16. lottiesc
    November 25, 2013

    I know people have said it to you many a times already and yet I’ll say it again too. Be you, be true to yourself, live life like YOU want it and let the people around you fit in for now. IF you can, it may help you if you are able to tell them how you feel or why you are as you are. I found that very helpful when I finally got around to doing it as so many people simply do NOT understand. They seem to think it’s all a matter of time and “getting over it” which we of course know is not the case at all! Once again hat off to you for your openness and willingness to share and by doing so, you’re there for and helping so many people in the process – admirable! And here’s a big hug for you too!!

  17. Greet Grief
    November 30, 2013

    As time goes on, we come to the realization that the loss of our loved one is just the first and most traumatizing loss. But what we bereaved soon experience are the multiple losses, one after the next that come with the death of our loved one. We are forever changed by the event – in personality, in our priorities, in our spirit. The lessons of loss…thank you for the raw honesty in sharing your feelings. Unfortunately, so many of us can identify with your thoughts!

  18. Massachusetts Avenue
    December 11, 2013

    Having lost my wife in an accident a little over four months ago, I may not be as far along in the process as you are. I too have felt the changed personality, but in my case it often feels these days like many of them are changes for the better. Sure, I feel the impatience and the ambivalence, but I also am doing a lot more things for myself and worrying a lot less about how I might appear to others. I realize I may only have a few years or days, and so I am wasting less time on things and people I would have felt obligated to deal with before. And the trivial things people get upset by at work seem like luxuries … if only my life was so simple again that work politics could seem interesting.

    I guess what I am getting at is that I have a new perspective, and I feel like my wife is still here with me, along for the ride, helping me see the bigger picture in life and to live what I have left the way I know is best.

  19. Pingback: twelve days | Life as a Widower

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