The New Normal

By Jeff Levy

After a crisis, illness, or other difficult life events, many people reach out to me to talk about their experience.  One of the first questions I am often asked is:  “When will life get back to normal again”?

We all have that desire to return to what is familiar; to once again find the rhythms of our lives “before”.  We look at returning to that “normal” as a sign that we have recovered and can return to life as it was.  We can release the breath we have been holding.  Everything will be ok.  Normal.

I found myself struggling with this same phenomenon after my mother’s death.  A few weeks after her funeral, I remember sitting in a consultation group with a number of my colleagues.  One colleague in particular, who I know was trying to provide me with support, glanced my way, said she was sorry for my loss, and “hoped that things were back to normal”.

What is normal?

NORMAL?  This word seemed garbled—unintelligible.   The idea of “normal” no longer was part of my vocabulary.  And despite being an adult, I think I still had a child’s sense of normal:  Something happens.  We deal with it.  It goes away.  Life returns to normal.  My mother’s death felt markedly different.  And at the time my colleague shared her intended compassion, I remember feeling flooded with sadness.  Confused.  And entirely uncertain as to how I would ever feel normal again.

Many of us are faced with the challenge of a “new normal”.  We lose loved ones.  We are physically injured.  We have chronic pain.  We divorce.  We experience a traumatic life event.  We lose our hair.  We grow old.   We struggle with finding a new job after a lay-off.  We change in ways that make it impossible to see ourselves, our relationships,  or the world as we once did.  As a result, we may feel extreme distress, anxiety, sadness and almost always some sense of loss.  Many times, when I introduce the idea of a “new normal”, a small window of relief opens.  We may not be able to return to “normal” but there is hope as we consider the prospect of a “new normal”.

Shifting Definitions of Normal

Soon after beginning work with a middle-aged woman, she called me to tell me she had rushed her husband to the hospital because of abdominal pain.  He was admitted and after two days and a number of tests, he was diagnosed with cancer.  Emergency surgery followed and due to complications, the next day he was gone.  By the time I received her call, she had already made arrangements for the wake and the funeral.

Several months after her husband’s death, she came to a session and was obviously distraught.  “Everyone in my life is back to normal, but I feel stuck”, she continued, ” I want to press the ‘pause’ button so that the world stops and I have time to catch up”!  She knew this was impossible, still she yearned for a temporary reprieve to reorganize, recover, recalibrate.

We spent a great deal of time exploring her loss and how, in addition to her husband, there were other associated losses.  She lost what she had planned for her future and for their future together.  She lost the ability to reminisce with him about their past life together.  There was no returning to what she had previously experienced as normal.  Life was different.  The future would be different.  Normal was going to be different.  Frightening.  New.  For her, and for many of us who have experiences that shake our foundations, we may describe our lives as “before” and “after”.  We draw a psychological line that separates normal from the present.

While her grief continued, we began to further explore the idea of a “new normal”.   She came to understand the temporal nature of “normal”. And while her grief was not gone, she recognized that grief was part of her new normal. There are experiences and events that change the trajectory of our lives, but accepting the changing nature of normal allows us to use these experiences—even the most painful—to explore what normal means to us in the moment. Hopefully, we come to understand that normal is constantly changing and that part of living fully requires a kind of emotional, psychological and spiritual flexibility.

Normal is Always New

My client continued to see me for almost a year after her husband’s death. She accepted more readily that grief was part of her new normal.  And even with her grief, she could begin to consider her options for the future.  At the same time, she recognized that at any moment, what she currently considered “normal” could change.  This was the new normal.

I also came to this place as I traversed the course of my grief around the loss of my mother; that missing her is part of my new normal.  Years later I continue to be surprised by the moments and experiences in my life that invite me to consider the new normal: to flex, to bend, to accommodate, and to hopefully accept.

I sometimes wish I could return to childhood—or even young adulthood—when normal seemed fixed, solid, and dependable.  Then I remind myself, as I do my clients, that our lives are comprised of infinite ever-changing possibilities.  And if we are truly living in the present, normal is always changing. It is always new.

 If you want to sing out, sing out, 
 And if you want to be free, be free.
 There’s a million things to be, 
 You know that there are.

—Cat Stevens

Written by Jeff Levy, LCSW, CTRS

Published on December 6, 2017