Normal Isn’t Normal Anymore

Author: Betsy Beard

I used to believe, along with author Patsy Clairmont who wrote a humorous book of the same title, that Normal Is Just a Setting on Your Dryer. But it seems like so much more to me, now. When our son died, "normal" flew out the window and hasn't returned. And because of its departure, leaving confusion, chaos, and disarray in its wake, the concept of normal seems far more important now than just a setting on the dryer. And not quite so funny. It should come as no surprise to us that psychologists and psychiatrists have ideas about what constitutes normal behavior among humans. I mean, someone decided at some point that we needed to define the parameters. And so they wrote a whole book of aberrant behavior, called Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). Periodically mental health professionals get together and compare notes-classifying, measuring, and defining all the things that are deemed to be "not normal." Disorders, dysfunctions, dysphorias, delusions, and disruptions are all listed and catalogued, along with criteria and measurements and treatments.


Those of us grieving the death of a loved one know all about disruptions, delusions, and dysfunction. We know that we are not the same people we were before the death. We know that we will never be that person again. After the initial mourning period allotted by society-something like three months-some of my friends bemoaned the fact that I was not much fun. They wanted the old "me" back. They were not alone. I wanted the old "me" back as well, but she was nowhere to be found.

Although we were notified of the death, no one notified us of the extreme emotions we would experience. They only told us the bare facts of time, place, and method, leaving out the really important information about how the death would affect us. For years to come.

For months after my son died, I dragged myself to a Vet Center each week to see a grief counselor. Each time, I would share with him some bizarre feeling I had or strange activity I had engaged in. I told him about finding Brad's old sock under the bed and sealing it in a Ziploc bag to preserve its smell. And lining up all the gifts Brad had ever given me as a memorial display on my first birthday after his death. And listening to his music that I never liked when he was alive. Nothing seemed to surprise the counselor, and his response was usually a variation of, "That sounds pretty normal to me." 

I could not believe it. Normal? My answer was, "Well, it may sound normal to you, but it is definitely not what I would call normal. I have never done or said or thought or written anything like that before. It feels crazy. Demented. How can it be normal?" 

What I really couldn't understand at the time was that the constellation of symptoms I was exhibiting was exactly normal for someone whose loved one had died suddenly and traumatically. I was sad, depressed, listless, and touchy. I could barely function. And I did weird things. It felt so crazy that I figured the grief counselor would have to agree with me at some point and institutionalize me. 

So I would tell him about my off-the-wall thoughts and actions. Like scrounging through the garbage cans to find glass containers to throw on the patio, so that they shattered into tiny pieces. "Normal." Like making grilled cheese sandwiches for dinner every single night for a month, because I didn't have the energy or creativity to do anything different. "Normal." Like begging God to let me be the one to die in Brad's place and bring him back to life instead. But guess what? "Normal." 

Finally, in exasperation, I asked what it would take for me to shock the counselor with something abnormal. What would get his attention and worry him? The answer was, "If you came in happy, carefree, and exuberant, that would be abnormal for the current circumstances of your life. And that would worry me." 

The light bulb finally went on. If I hadn't been behaving and feeling as I did at this point in time, that would not have been normal-in fact, it would have been abnormal. But this strange "normal" was not what I was accustomed to. It didn't fit. It didn't feel right. And I hated it. 

It took a long time to come to terms with the fact that I had no say in the matter of Brad's death. It took a lot of talking and writing and crying. I am still not "okay" with the fact that he is gone. But at this point I realize that there is nothing I can do to get the old life and the old normal back.

Many who have mourned a significant loss have come to realize this, as well, and we call the place where we find ourselves now our "new normal." I know this because when I attend TAPS events, I find people who are experiencing the same feelings I have. We talk about the bizarre, aberrational things we have done in our grieving. We sometimes find that we have even done the same strange things. And since a majority of us discover that our reactions are similar, we are in fact setting the benchmark for what is now "normal."  

After the initial shock and numbness wore off, we were left with pain, turmoil, confusion, hopelessness on some days, depression on other days, and sadness much of the time. Finding each other helps us because we can share in the remnants of joy when we find them, and we can also understand and be there for each other on the not-so-wonderful days: the holidays, the angelversaries, the birthdays, and the inexplicably painful days. We find that although we can't go back to our old way of life, we can go forward. Together. 

After ten years, I think I have adjusted to the absence of Brad's presence. Life is different from what it was before. So much so that we divide time by "before" and "after" the death. Time has moved on. We have found ways to cope with the pain and absorb our new circumstances. We have begun to find hope and meaning in our lives.

As we continue to move forward, living our lives for lack of anything better to do, we find that there are times of joy, unwarranted happiness, and feelings of well-being that spring up at odd moments. Those times make me recollect the "old normal." But they don't take me back there, because somehow the new feelings are shadowed by loss, tempered by the knowledge of death, anchored by the sadness of missing the way we were. I don't think the weight of sadness will ever vanish entirely. But we are stronger and better able to bear the weight. We are better at lifting the load. 

We know that we can live with the pain of absence. We are able to reach back into the darkness and extend our hands to help others, sharing their similar loads. We find new purpose. We discover that the things in which we find meaning are different. Events and circumstances that bring us comfort, joy, and laughter are different. 

This is our new normal. But it's our normal now. And it's so much more important than the setting on the dryer.  

Betsy BeardBy Betsy Beard, Surviving mom of U.S. Army SPC Bradley S. Beard: Betsy Beard served as the editor of TAPS Magazine for seven years in addition to volunteering as a peer mentor, care group facilitator, and national workshop presenter. In that time she authored a number of TAPS publications and Quick Series Guides, as well as the award-winning children's book, Klinger: A Story of Honor and Hope and many articles for TAPS Magazine. Betsy has been published in Living with Loss publications and various newspapers. She currently is a freelance book editor and serves as the awards director of Military Writers Society of America.  She lives in North Carolina with her husband, Randy.