Grief automatically throws us into a time of change. Some of us might regain a semblance of the life we once had, while others veer off into surprising, unexpected paths. Either way, where ever and whomever we used to be and everything we took for granted has changed.
We tell people we’re “fine” mostly because we know that’s what they want to hear, but there is a part of us that really wants to believe it, too. We want our sense of normal back, that time in our lives when everything (no matter how much we might have complained at the time) was “fine.”
Not that there is any such thing as a universal measurement of “normal,” but we each have our own internal compass pointing towards what normal is for us. Up until the time death throws our lives off track, and the compass stops working. We don’t know where we are going, and all we desperately want is to go back to where ever normal used to be.
The underlying truth is not that death has wholly changed us (that would be almost too easy) but that grief is a series of changes. We aren’t picked up from one side of the map of our lives and dropped down on the other side. Instead, the map we know so well has been scraped clean, “normal” wiped away while our compass points crazily in ten different directions. We don’t know where we are headed, much less where we might go.
In a sense, a mourner’s version of normal becomes the journey itself, as the map is reconfigured and redrawn. More than at any other stage of life, surviving the death of a loved one is about the path we take afterwards, even if we just feel like we are sinking (or, perhaps, dog paddling. I think I floated on my back for years…).
It is terribly frightening, and the cliché “feeling unmoored” is never more applicable. We tell people we are fine, that everything is going okay, that we are handling things well, because to admit otherwise is to admit that we just might be lost and our compass is broken.
It is not about being stoic, as people outside of our grief might see it. Maybe part of it is, since I admit that at the time I felt some pride in being able to handle everything being hurled at me. I was surviving the deaths of my parents, and that felt like a triumph—a bittersweet triumph, to be sure, but still something to cling to as success as my entire life was shredded.
On the whole, though, I think our repetitive answers of “fine,” “okay” and “hanging in there” have more to do with not really knowing ourselves how we are. The map is being redrawn by our travels, not the other way around. The roughest waters we cross might take months or years (or decades, in my case), and even then we aren’t actually anywhere we recognize as “normal.”
How are we? Really? We’re figuring it out, and it’s scary. I think we need to be allowed to admit that, no matter how uncomfortable it makes people. Our job is to find our new way in the world, not reassure others that normal never disappears.
KimBoo York 2011