The “New Normal” Doesn’t Work For Me

new-normalI don’t like “the new normal” for describing one of grief’s essential goals.

Your grandmother dies—the one who cared for you after school while your parents worked, and made your senior ball dress—and you deeply grieve her loss. She was a best friend. Now your family and friends tell you to find a “new normal” as you struggle with not having one of your lifelong cheerleaders available for a talk.

Your spouse of a more than four decades has died. This is the person you’ve known and who has known you since the first year of college. Many of your friends (most of whom are still married, still a couple, and have no clue how horribly your heart is broken) encourage you to seek out the “new normal.”

Your second child dies on the day of birth. For nearly nine months, the ob-gyn said, “Everything was fine.” And then it wasn’t. The child had a name, had a room decorated, and had an excited family ready to welcome her into the world. Gone. But you’re young, friends say. You’ll get over it, friends say. You’ll eventually reach a “new normal,” they say.

Everyone who dies is unique. We know that.

Everyone’s grief is unique. We understand that.

And after death—as grief batters our souls and we’re eating too much or not enough, and sleeping without getting any rest, and with hearts not just broken but shredded—we long for “normal.”

Normal?

Even an expected death stuns us.

An unexpected, sudden death nearly destroys us. No . . . it does destroy us.

Grief is a natural, normal emotional response to a loved one’s death. And yet nothing about it ever feels “normal.” We weep. We don’t weep. We sit in a meeting at work for an hour and can’t recall one thing said or one decision made. We drink our first cup of coffee and cry our eyes out because the person who used to make it every morning will never place another mug with just the right amount of cream and sugar in front of us again. We shut the door on the newly painted baby’s room and wonder if we can ever walk down the hall again without averting our eyes.

How can there ever be a “new normal?”

Normal died. Normal was that other life you once had, once enjoyed, once complained about, once took for granted, and shared with someone you loved with all of your heart.

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Letting my mind wander, I scribbled alternatives to the “new normal.” I’m not sure anything will replace it for describing life after a loved one’s death, but two made a little sense to me.

What about a Rebuilt Me?

During seminary, one of my fellow students usually had three or four broken-down Jaguars parked in a back lot. He’d spend weeks or months searching for new and used parts to get a car ready for sale. Those Jaguars were not just a hobby; they paid for some of his tuition.

As with rebuilding our lives after death, we will need to include new parts in order help our healing and move forward. But some of the “old” parts are forever important. Don’t you dare stop telling your favorite stories because they cause tears. Let the tears fall. Remembering and honoring the “old” times are essential. Healing will also include recycled ideas from others. A friend will make a suggestion or a book offers an idea and your healing continues from a “borrowed” idea.

Slowly, we rebuild our lives.

The Next Best Me was the second phrase.

I think of those I’ve met in grief support groups. Some had many decades of a “normal” life, but then became—in the final months or years—caregivers. In both of those very different times, they were always trying to give their best. When life was “normal” (raising kids, working, doing household chores, etc.), there was a mix of delightful and difficult and dull moments, along with unforgettable “best” times. That was also the case when the person became a caregiver. Yes, caring for another includes self-doubt, exhaustion, and frustration, but each person sought to do their best as they supported a loved one during the final days.

Whether forty or eighty, whether a child died too early or a spouse died after a long life, what can be done to create a next best you? Even with your loss and feeling lost, I hope you can remember that you’re someone who has given love and is worthy of love; someone who can set goals, and whose daily goal is to try to do the best for others.

I hope you can seek to become the next best me.

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Honestly, my two suggested phrases mostly ring false. The New Normal or Rebuilt Me or Next Best Me are labels and goals everyone would prefer, thank you very much, to avoid. I could probably keep brainstorming for better and newer descriptions, but I’d still fail. We want our loved ones to be with us . . . always. Death spoils that longing. Always.

We are no longer who we once were. It doesn’t matter what words attempt to “inspire” grieving and healing (let alone crawling out of bed in the morning), we’ll feel lousy for a long time.

Choose and use whatever phrase makes sense to you . . . or discard ‘em all. But please don’t ignore the daily work of grief that will keep you open to your next phase of life.

(Hospice vigorously protects a patient’s privacy. I’ll take care with how I share my experiences. Any names used are fictitious. Events are combined and/or summarized.)

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