A New Normal

As a grief therapist, I’ve worked with many clients who were struggling with the deep (and inescapable) trauma of the loss of a loved one. There’s no right or wrong way to navigate grief. But it’s one of the few things EVERYONE will have to experience at some point in our lives. With the news recently forcing us to look at suicide and other losses again, I thought it might be a good time to, once again, look at how grief expresses itself.

What grief is really about is the process of experiencing the changes in our lives and finally getting to the point of understanding that we’ll never go back to exactly the way we were. We have to embrace the changes and eventually realize there is a new normal. It won’t be the same, we may not like it as well as what we had before, but it can be better or at least as good.  The one thing we can be sure of – it will be different.

Grief is not confined to the loss of loved ones or relationships. It extends to any change in our lives: the birth of a new baby, an older child going off to college, a job loss or promotion; the list is endless. Some of these are positive changes and some are obvious losses; but even with positive change, there is a loss of what was. This list should also probably include the huge changes that are taking place at lightning speed in all of our lives today because of the internet, immediate news coverage and other technological advances. Even for those of us who enjoy the challenge of change, it can sometimes be overwhelming.

When things happen in our country or worldwide – like the huge amount of gun violence, the displacement of millions of refugees around the world, the emergence of laws and policies that affect all of us, whether we agree with them or not – the way we have always perceived our world is affected. If the change is something we had hoped for and worked to implement, it makes it easier to accept, but it still requires an adjustment of our daily lives.

When the change is not something we wanted, we can get thrown off-balance. We felt a sense of safety because we thought we knew “how things were supposed to be.” Then when something happens, we may feel threatened – life as we have always known it, is gone. We try to deny it – or if we acknowledge it, we still hope/wish it will go back to the way it was. If we maintain this mindset for long, it puts us into a holding pattern. We wait it out, assuming that one day things will go back to “normal.”  As this time of waiting increases, we are just existing. We miss out on life. We don’t experience the day to day joys – and sorrows. We just don’t experience life as it happens. We sit in depression, missing what used to be and in anxiety, wondering when it’s going to change back, so we can get on with our lives.  Some become angry and try to fight it.

One example that illustrates this is people who have successfully found recovery through the 12 Step programs or otherwise. They eventually realize they have grieved the “good old days” – the partying, the fun or the escape they experienced as their addiction progressed, the self identity they developed over time as the life of the party, or just someone who could enjoy an occasional drink (although as addiction progresses, “a drink” is usually not the norm). As this realization sinks in, they begin to accept that things will be different, and there will be a new normal in their lives.

Our grief process from the loss of a loved one, a broken relationship, a job, or a major social change is not different. We have to get to a place where we recognize – and even embrace the fact that things will never be exactly the same.

In his book THE TURNING POINT, Gregg Braden called this “expanded resilience”. Resilience is the ability to return to normal functioning after a trauma in our lives. As Gregg explained it, expanded resilience is the ability to think and live every day in a way that allows us to thrive in whatever comes, because we’re facing reality. He goes on to discuss physiological reasons we become less resilient as we age or face traumas. There are technologies and techniques being developed every day that can be used to help us learn to expand our resilience.

For my purpose here, I just want to make the point that regardless of whether we are experiencing the loss of a loved one, or some other change in our lives, we are probably at some stage of grief. It’s important to take the time we need to mourn the relationship/things we’ve lost, and even the hopes we had for our future that won’t happen now (at least not in the way we thought they would).

But don’t misunderstand. While we need to accept where we are and that the future may not look like we thought it would, it doesn’t mean we have to just lay back and allow life to roll over on us. Sometimes change is a challenge to examine that new normal, and decide if there isn’t more we can do to make it even better. Depending on what the loss/change was, maybe we need to develop new relationships, or skills to help shape the prospects ahead or to prevent isolation. Or maybe we need to lose our complacency – to stand up for policies we’ve always believed in, but never thought they’d be at risk. As I said earlier, it will not be the same as it was, but it can be better; but that’s only if we make it happen.

Mostly, we just need to be as honest and open to whatever comes each day. If we continue to hold on to what was, we won’t be able to create space in our lives for what will be.

Be open to everything and attached to nothing.

-Wayne Dyer