Across town in a small cemetery, nestled in a family plot, lies a small headstone citing a man’s name, along with the words, “Pastor, Teacher, Papa, Friend.” These simple words, identifying the man behind the stone, also significantly identify his relationship to those left behind.
We know ourselves in the context of relationship… a daughter or son, a spouse, a parent, a friend, a co-worker/employee. As deeply social creatures, human identity is tied intimately to the relationships forged across one’s life. Life experiences are processed in the context of human relationships. So the death of a loved one prompts a traumatic restructuring of identity and experience in the context of the lost relationship. What was will never be again. You grieve as much the loss of self you know and understand as you grieve the person who has died. Life as you have known it will never be “normal” again.
An illustration I frequently use in group depicts that of a circle with a large hole in the middle, representing the loved one who has died. A big part of one’s self dies, along with the loved one, and sadly, this loss never goes away. That “hole” will always be there, just as big as ever, because that loved one dominated a significant role in the person’s life. HOWEVER, the story doesn’t end there. You see, as people move forward from the point of loss, they continue to experience life, form new relationships, and build new experiences. They form NEW layers of experiences and relationships around the old layers, building upon the old to form a new… a new normal, if you will. This does not deplete or erase the old. Your loved one will ALWAYS be significant in your life… AND so will new relationships and new experiences. The story continues.
A friend of mine described her journey to the new normal in the months after her husband died from brain cancer a few years ago. She said it was like she and her husband were in a boat going down a river together, and at one point, he got out of the boat, but she continued on. “I didn’t want to, but I had to.” Since then, my friend, has returned to school to work on an advanced degree. She bought a house, lost weight and took up kayaking. Life is good, but if you ask her about her husband, it is very clear that he still occupies a significant role in her life and always will. She has brought him with her into the “new normal” – not as he was but as a part of who she is. The “new normal” does not erase the old. It enhances and builds upon it.