Good Grieving: Finding a New Normal

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Grieving is about what makes our lives normal, not what makes them pleasant. The new normal may be better or worse than the earlier normal.

I think grieving is a part of life. I don’t mean only grieving for people, but the process of adjusting to loss.

Bob Deits, in Life After Loss, defines grieving in a way that makes sense to me: the process of adjusting to the loss of something that made our lives normal. This has interesting and useful implications I think.

Firstly, it is about what makes our lives normal, not what makes them pleasant. For instance, we may not like our childhood home much and probably didn’t think of it as in any way perfect — but if it were to burn down, we would feel the loss and probably go through some kind of grieving process. A more significant example is those who have been abused by someone close to them. It can puzzle those close to the abused person that, when the abuser dies, the abused person isn’t simply happy. And those who leave a marriage that is pretty unsatisfactory may still grieve its loss.

We can also grieve normal expectations. In a culture where marriage is still often thought of as being for life, a divorced person may feel the loss of not growing old together with their partner.

Secondly, there are different things that make our lives normal. This definition allows for degrees of intensity. The staining of a favourite piece of clothing will probably lead to a degree of grieving that differs from that of grieving for the destruction of a favourite novel or car or friendship.

Thirdly, it leaves open what we will grieve about. Normally we think of grieving as being about the death of a person. We fairly easily extend this to the loss of normal abilities — like walking or seeing. However, what makes our lives normal is more extensive than this.

I have a friend, whom I will call Terri. Terri is probably dying because her immune system is attacking her cartilage. This means that Terri is in fairly severe, continuous pain. One consequence was the destruction of the cartilage in Terri’s ear. This meant that while her body was learning to use other balance mechanisms, she couldn’t move without feeling nauseous. For several days she had to crawl to the toilet, for instance. This is a degree of loss and suffering that I am very thankful that I, and most people I know, don’t have to deal with. The loss that Terri felt most keenly was the loss of the routine of the school year. Since the age of two, Terri had structured her life around the school year — and later the university year. She had, up until her thirties when the condition developed, excelled academically. She had almost always been studying and had often been teaching as well (from quite an early age). It was a world she knew, it was a world she excelled in and a world in which she was greatly rewarded for excelling in (such as by awards, popularity and finance). It was, in short, her normal world. And it was no longer being part of this world which was the loss that Terri grieved most.

Fourthly, it gives a sense of what the process of grieving is. It is about finding a new normal. Normal can be a whole lot of little details: who does the washing or cooking, needing to check with a partner before making an appointment, how we organise our priorities or timetables, keeping a list of the groceries we need… Normal is made up of lots of little things as well as big things. And so, when we suffer a loss, we can feel disoriented with so many things to do — there is a lot to be re-learnt, and it can be surprising what it is.

Fifthly, it doesn’t prejudge the outcome of grieving. The new normal may be better or worse than the earlier normal. If a parent loses a child, then it is likely that in a meaningful sense, the parent’s new normal will be worse than the previous normal. For the person leaving an abusive relationship, it is likely that the new normal will be significantly better than the old normal (although the process of adjustment may still take a great deal of time and effort).

I would like to know if you find this a useful perspective on grief. If you have been through a time of deep grieving, what was it that helped you with the process? Do you feel that you found a new normal, or is this not a helpful way to think about it for you? I’m looking forward to hearing your comments.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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