As common as the term ‘new normal’ is among those grieving, I am always shocked how many people email or message us asking ‘how long until I feel normal again’. Other variations are something like ‘my family thinks I should be back to normal by now, but I am not’ or ‘I thought once I survived the first year I would start to feel normal again, but I don’t’. I always think long and hard before I answer these messages. I think about what I want to say and how I want to say it. That’s not because I haven’t said it many, many, many times before. It’s because I know on the other end of that screen is a person, lost in grief, hoping for an easy answer. Something like, ‘Oh, at about 552 days after the death, normalcy will resume’ or ‘don’t worry, things will settle out and you’ll feel like the old you before you know it’. But those aren’t the answers they’re about to read.
I walk them through slowly, taking them through some of the concepts that are old hat around here, helping them understand why they feel so disconnected from the person they used to be and the life they used to live. It seems simple – my loved one is gone, the world has changed. That’s true, but there is a lot more to it than that when it comes to our sense of self. If you missed it, we have a post called I Don’t Know Who I Am Anymore that is all about the complexity of identity and why grief really shakes it up. I tell them about it. We’ve also talked about how grief changes our priorities, shatters our assumptive beliefs about the world, and how grief is not just about the primary loss, but the domino of secondary losses we experience. I talk about all of those things too. Though there are no universals in grief, I ease them into the idea that the ‘before and after’ experience is amazingly common, and we need to be gentle with our selves as we learn to cope with the person we are now, in the life we’re living now.
In Pauline Boss’s book on Ambiguous Loss, she mentions grieving someone who is still alive, but who has had an identity change and is expected by others to be who they used to be (this is a sort of subtype of variation of her Type 2 ambiguous loss). When we mention this and ask for examples in trainings or workshops for counselors, we often hear the examples: individuals who are transgendered or people who have significant changes in their faith identity. But inevitably someone in the depths of grief themselves, or who has had clients discuss it, says “People who are grieving! Me!”. They go on to explain that feeling of being changed fundamentally; they see and experience the world differently, but everyone expects them to be the person they always were. The people around them wear thin and are frustrated that they are not returning to ‘normal’. The person grieving wears thin and becomes frustrated that those around them can’t understand the shift.
When we think of all the things we grieve as part of a devastating primary loss, one thing we often don’t take the time to mourn is that sense of ‘normalcy’ we used to know, that ‘normal’ person we used to be. Losing that person we used to be doesn’t mean we will never be happy. It doesn’t mean we won’t find a ‘new normal’, as many like to say. It doesn’t mean we won’t make space for new people, new hope, new dreams. It does mean that our very life, going on without that person, will always be a bittersweet reminder that our loved one is gone and that we are different. Every step when they would have been in step next to us is a reminder that the world is no longer ‘normal’. We are trapped in that ambiguity that Boss describes so well, being uncertain of who we are now. It is a hard phenomenon to put into words until you experience it yourself.
Maggie Rogers released her new album today. If you don’t know who she is, she is a young musician with a Cinderella story. She went from being a student at NYU to being famous overnight, after a video of Pharrell Williams listening to (and loving) her music went viral. Her album is called ‘Heard it in a Past Life’ and I read an interview where she talked about the title. She explained that people keep asking her about reincarnation, something she knows nothing about. The title is actually a reference to the person she was, the life she lived, before becoming famous overnight. You can hear it in her interviews and her music as she tries to retain and reconcile her sense of identity, all the while aware that something so significant has happened that her life is now “before and after’.
Even in a Cinderella story, Rogers grieves for the person she used to be, the life before the fame. Even in the best of life-altering situations, we lose a sense of normalcy, we lose a piece of our identity, and we start to realize we can never fully go back to who we were before. Perhaps Maggie Rogers has labeled it best. After we lose a person, our life with them begins to feel like a past life. It was a life defined by their presence in it. We have a new life now, the life that is shaped by enduring love and enduring loss, where we also create space for new things. It feels complicated to understand who we are, how we fit, and what normal could possibly mean in this new world.
But as Pauline Boss’s work explains, we can work on expanding our thinking to help us cope. We can learn to think in a more dialectical way, accepting that sometimes two things that seem at odds can both be true. We can learn to accept things like:
I am both the person I used to be, a person with a set of memories from ‘before’, and a new person, who sees and experiences the world fundamentally differently.
The world is both the same and radically different.
I know, it’s complicated. These ideas go against the way we often like to categorize the world, but they are often the reality of grief. They are the foundation of the complex new life. It is a life where somehow, day by day, we start to find some sort of ‘new normal’, all the while knowing we will never be normal again.
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