I attended a very moving memorial service this past week. A man—husband, father, son, brother, uncle, friend—died suddenly and very tragically. He was an exceptional man in life—talented, accomplished, intelligent, faithful, loving and devoted, to name just a few of his attributes. In one horrible moment, in one terrible accident, he was gone.
I sat in the balcony watching the church sanctuary fill with faces like mine, strained with disbelief and sorrow. It was just unimaginable that we were going through these motions “in memory of” this vital man. It was impossible to grasp that he really could have been taken so soon from this world to which he had contributed so greatly.
I watched his family file in. His wife’s expression a window directly into her shattered heart; her sons on either side of her, supporting her, while trying to come to terms with their own enormous loss. At one point, just as they reached their seats in the long pew, the now-widow turned to her oldest boy with her hand covering her mouth, her eyes folding into agonized, tear-filled creases. It was as if being in this place finally forced her to abandon shocked disbelief to come face-to-face with harsh, unyielding reality. And then I watched her son instantly became a man as he put his arms around his mother, pulling her protectively close.
This very poignant, private moment, only fleetingly visible to me from my balcony vantage point, transported me back to not-so-distant times when my own sense of loss and confusion seemed too great to bear. For just a moment, I was lost in a dark and painful part of my mind that I have worked very hard to control, if not conquer. I felt the weight of loss bearing down. I felt that hollow spot grow in my heart—the one that makes you wonder if it can ever be filled again. I saw beautiful hues of color streaming through stained glass windows turn to nothing but shades of gray.
As I stared at this bereaved family, mired in the visage of my own darkness, a friend seated next to me quietly asked me a question , thankfully jarring me back into the moment. Back to this family’s moment, as the door to my own past gently closed once again.
The service was beautiful, heartfelt, and upbeat in appropriate moments. There were memories shared, moments of laughter, and heads bowed in prayer as a brilliant, but all-too-brief life was honored. Following the service, we all congregated in a reception hall to offer condolences, hugs, tissues, and support. I made my way to the brother of the deceased—a high school classmate of mine. He, like the rest of his family, was encircled by dozens of people offering their love and words of solace. I stepped forward for my turn in the long line and saw a glimmer of recognition bring a smile to his face—we had not seen each other in years. I hugged him and told him that I too had lost a sibling, my sister, at about the same age as his brother was. He said, “So you know. You know what this feels like.” I said, yes, that I did know. He looked at me with pooling eyes and said, “I’m just hoping that it gets easier. I hope it gets easier.”
I found that I could not bring myself to say the words he so desperately wanted to hear. Just then, another friend walked up and the conversation moved on, but his words, and my lack of a ready response, remained stuck in my mind. Why hadn’t I been able to tell him that yes, with time, it will get easier?
I thought about it the rest of the day and then finally that night, in that quiet time when my brain is not asked to multitask, the answer hit me. I don’t think it does get easier. This kind of loss does not heal, or go away. You just get better at it.
You get better at dealing with it. You find a way to think about your lost loved one not in terms of tragedy, but in terms of joy, of shared experience. You feel them in your heart as a living force that, while gone from this immediate existence, is still very much a part of your life, part of the fiber of who you are.
This family has so much ahead. Perhaps the hardest moments of all come when the shock of the death, the quick planning, and the memorial service come to an end. The hardest moments come when you walk away from the funeral, back into your home, back into your life.
It’s at this point that the world seems to come to a halt. Everything is too quiet. And the stillness does nothing to calm the chaos that rages in your mind as it tries to make sense of something that defies all rationality. Everyone else gets to go home to their normal lives, but you’re just not sure what that even is now.
The concept of picking up and moving on seems impossible. Old routines seem foreign. Everything is out of order, everything seems incomprehensible, overwhelming. You can dream about the “old normal,” you can yearn for it, you can try to cling to it with all of your strength, but it’s gone. There’s no going back.
I remember a time of being at this very point of transition, firmly in the grip of darkness, praying out loud for normal. Dear God, I begged, please just let me find my new normal, whatever that may be. No more highs, no more lows. Please just bless me with normal.
And eventually, the new normal does appear. Daily routines alter, but become comfortable. A certain rhythm falls into place, and if you let them, rays of warm light start to penetrate that dark place in your mind. Not driving the darkness away, but helping it find a place where it can rest, where peace is allowed to blanket it.
Now, for this lovely family, I wish for them memories filled with joy, strength in unity, grace to allow the tears to fall, and, when the time is right, a new normal that leads to an exceptional life for all. I believe that where there is immense sorrow, our loving God, our universe, will replace it with an equal amount of jubilation, happiness and fulfillment. We just have to be willing to embrace it, and give thanks once again.
Finding the new normal is the first tiny step.