We didn’t choose the loss of our loved one. How do we proceed in this ‘new normal’ of our life?
“Living with a life-changing loss”. The clue is in the name: life-changing.
We are forever changed by the losses we experience in our lives. A child, a partner, or a close friend or other relative who had a big impact on our lives while they lived are naturally going to have a big impact on our lives now that they are absent.
You often hear the term ‘new normal’ in grief circles. This refers to those external changes caused by the death of our loved one, but it also includes the changes that we experience within ourselves.
Many people find themselves shaken to the core by their loss. We might not have much patience with the superficial trappings of life; we might become less materialistic, less driven by the need to ‘succeed’ or make money or be well thought of. Religious or spiritual beliefs might likewise have taken a shaking. (I found my own faith changed quite a bit – something I’ve written about elsewhere).
As time goes on, faced with how much our life has changed, our heart might sink as we realise that there is no going back to what it was before. It doesn’t mean that all changes were necessarily bad, but they were irreversible.
And so we live in the ‘new normal’.
But how? That’s a big question with many layers. This is one picture that I have found helpful.
In the passage below, some trees are described as not growing where they would like to be. They are not in ideal circumstances. But they seem to have figured out how to survive in the ‘normal’ that they face. They acknowledge that they might not look like the other trees in the forest – just as we might not look like our friends and colleagues who haven’t gone through this life-changing loss.
They acknowledge that things are not quite as they would like them to be, and what’s more, even they are not as they would like to be – “I may not be what all that is within me cries out to be.” – Just as we might wish that our own reactions to our loss are not what they are. Who wants to walk through life feeling broken, deep loneliness, anguish and sorrow?
But they are determined not to give up. “I will use to the full every resource in me and about me to answer life with life.”
Living with loss is still living. Living in the new normal is living.
We might not be where we would have chosen to be, but we are here nevertheless. The trees seem to have been determined to survive against the odds: “I shall make a careful survey of my situation and work out a method, a way of life, that will yield growth and development for me despite the contradictions under which I must eke out my days.”
Making the best of things means something different in practice for each of us. We each find our own way forward – perhaps supported or encouraged by what we learn from others – but ultimately it is our own choices, our own methods, our own ways, that will help us live the life we have now.
How do we live in the new normal? We live. That’s how. No matter the circumstances of our losses and the breaking of our hearts, if we focus on living, we might just survive and – dare we try it – even thrive.
It was above the timber line. The steady march of the forest had stopped as if some invisible barrier had been erected beyond which no trees dared move in a single file. Beyond was barrenness, sheer rocks, snow patches and strong untrammeled winds. Here and there were short tufts of evergreen bushes that had somehow managed to survive despite the severe pressures under which they had to live. They were not lush, they lacked the kind of grace of the vegetation below the timber line, but they were alive and hardy. Upon close investigation, however, it was found that these were not ordinary shrubs. The formation of the needles, etc., was identical with that of the trees further down; as a matter of fact, they looked like branches of the other trees. When one actually examined them, the astounding revelation was that they were branches. For, hugging the ground, following the shape of the terrain, were trees that could not grow upright, following the pattern of their kind. Instead, they were growing as vines grow along the ground, and what seemed to be patches of stunted shrubs were rows of branches of growing, developing trees. What must have been the torturous frustration and the stubborn battle that had finally resulted in this strange phenomenon!
It is as if the tree had said, “I am destined to reach for the skies and embrace in my arms the wind, the rain, the snow and the sun, singing my song of joy to all the heavens. But this I cannot do. I have taken root beyond the timber line, and yet I do not want to die; I must not die. I shall make a careful survey of my situation and work out a method, a way of life, that will yield growth and development for me despite the contradictions under which I must eke out my days. In the end I may not look like the other trees, I may not be what all that is within me cries out to be. But I will not give up. I will use to the full every resource in me and about me to answer life with life. In so doing I shall affirm that this is the kind of universe that sustains, upon demand, the life that is in it.”
I wonder if I dare to act even as the tree acts. I wonder! I wonder! Do you?
(From Howard Thurman’s Meditations of the Heart)
Read more: Grief and the art of reinvention