The Shifting Tides of Identity


The Shifting Tides of Identity

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Widowhood is part of me but not my whole state of being

I remember the moment clear as day, a Wednesday morning in Denver in 2008. I sat around a rectangular office table with a small group of women in their forties through seventies. Each week we gathered to study Kabbalah under the tutelage of David Sanders, PsyD, a new friend. I’d just been through a major life transition, big enough to drive me and my five-year-old twins away from Manhattan to Colorado to begin again. In Kabbalah, I was seeking connection and identity.

Here’s how I described the experience in my memoir, Both Sides Now: A True Story of Love, Loss, and Bold Living (Books & Books Press, 2014):

“That morning David asks us to introduce ourselves. ‘Pretend you are meeting someone for the first time at a party.’ I listen to the others, and when it’s my turn, without forethought or hesitation, I say, ‘I’m Nancy Sharp. I’m widowed . . .’ I stop myself. What am I saying? My tears come fast and are pooled with shame. I slouch in my chair, burying my face in my right hand. The room is quiet as a sanctuary. No one says a thing even though I feel the heat of their eyes upon me, staring in empathetic silence.

“I have come to this painful truth all on my own. How can I really make a new life in Denver if I am still chained to this old identity? I am more than a widow, dammit. I am a mother, daughter, friend, writer, lover of life, insatiable reader, curious soul, woman who loves to cook and nurture others through food. And now I am also Steve’s girlfriend. As though I’ve been clubbed in the head, I know in this moment that it is time for me to remove my widow mask, time to dispose of this label that I made a curse, time to realize that widowhood is not a state of being, that it’s part of me but not the whole part.”

That watershed moment changed everything for me. I simply took off the mask of armor shielding me both from myself and others, and I began to breathe more deeply and truly. I slept better, ate better, and loved better. Not surprisingly, I felt lighter, more energized.

Only then did all the hurt I’d been stockpiling since my husband’s death in 2004 give way to clearer vision. Slowly I began to feel pride in the ways I was rebuilding a life for the twins and me and, with that, came the monumental shift toward a broader, more integrated self-identity. I felt remarkably whole.

The ebb and flow of identity

No one escapes loss. People get sick. People die. People get divorced. Grown children move to another part of the country. People lose jobs. Families lose retirement savings. It hardly matters whether you count the losses as huge or manageable; all loss makes us feel vulnerable. And if we aren’t mindful, vulnerability can run rampant and morph into behaviors, anxieties, and actions that threaten to eclipse our fuller identities. “Who are we?” becomes ridiculously hard to answer when life is viewed through a prism of loss.

Here’s the thing: vulnerability is the gateway to growth. The sooner we recognize the painful, complicated emotions that loss evokes, the more quickly we are to accept our feelings and integrate them into our new selves.

Acclaimed research professor and best-selling author Brené Brown, PhD, LMSW, says in her newest book, Rising Strong, “Our job is not to deny the story, but to defy the ending—to rise strong, recognize our story, and rumble with the truth until we get to a place where we think, Yes. This is what happened.”

Friends, I am wild about that passage.

Regardless of how crappy life feels, everyone has the potential to rebuild her story. I’m living proof. The new life I’ve made for myself in Colorado is sweet, but it isn’t without challenges. Trust me, I’ve got plenty. That’s just life. What’s different today is that I accept all the parts of me that make me whole without letting any one part overshadow the others. Today, at 49, I can tell you that I am many things at once: mother, wife, daughter, sister, loyal friend, inspirational speaker, award-winning author, speechwriter, Bold Living Expert, Dog Mama, terrific cook, avid reader, bath junkie, and serious ice cream lover. I’m also a widow, I have anxiety, I’m not terribly organized, my handwriting stinks, I repeat myself, I set high expectations, I like to have the last word, and even though I preach the gospel of bold, some days I’d rather stay in bed hidden beneath the covers.

There you have it. I’m a real mixed bag, but, nonetheless, I am a whole person. A woman who stills feels like a Solo Mom at her core even though I’ve been remarried for seven years to a guy who loves and adores my twins. For life to work, I have to accept these somewhat dueling realities.

Identity, you see, shifts over time and with accrued life events. We have to be open to how our experiences change us and to be mindful of integrating the good and bad, painful and pleasant moments. This is how we build bolder, truer identities.

In what ways do you define yourself? Be generous and searingly honest.

How has your identity shifted in recent years?

What are you still hoping to become?

Answer those questions, and email me at grief@esme.com.


Nancy Sharp is an author, a keynote speaker, and a storyteller who frequently speaks publicly about loss, transformation, and bold living. The author of the award-winning memoir, Both Sides Now: A True Story of Love, Loss, and Bold Living, she lives in Denver with her second husband, her twins, and her two stepsons. You can find her on Twitter at @BoldLivingNow and Facebook at Nancy Sharp.

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