What’s Normal?

What’s Normal? by Jennifer Shontz, LSCSW, LCSW, Grief Support Specialist

Losing a loved one turns your world upside down. You experience emotions you’ve never felt, and some are overwhelming and intense. You react in ways that aren’t typical for you. You long for what was “normal” in your life but your heart reminds you that things are forever changed. In other words, in grief, it’s normal to feel that nothing is normal.

What is normal in early grief is a number of emotions and reactions that exist on a continuum, from one extreme to the other. For example, you may avoid places or objects that prompt memories of your loved one. Or, you may actively seek out those things to evoke comforting memories. One person stays busy and welcomes distractions, while another struggles to do anything. Both these reactions are considered “normal.”

Other reactions that may feel unusual but are very common among grieving people include:

Fatigue – “I’m so tired and I’m not  even doing anything.” Remember, grief is work, and you are using a lot of energy to process your loss.

Physical Changes – “I can’t sleep” or “I sleep all the time.” “I have no appetite.” “I have aches and pains; I feel weak.” Grief has a very real, physical component, including a decreased resistance to illness.

Cognitive changes – Forgetfulness, difficulty focusing and making decisions are prevalent. “I can’t think. I can’t even read.”

Experiencing the presence of your loved one – There is a disquieting sense of unreality in the first months of grief. In our previous “normal world,” we expected that person to be present, so it’s understandable that it takes time to adjust to their absence. Talking to your loved one, calling out for that person, hearing his/her voice or waiting for an appearance are often feared to be “crazy” reactions but are simply part of the process of fully experiencing the reality of loss. “I just can’t believe it!”

Apathy – We often temporarily lose our joy to live and feel apathetic about being part of this world. Some imagine what it would be like to die in order to be with their lost loved one. This can be alarming to those who care about them, but it’s a natural response. However, having the intention to die, making plans to end your life or continually thinking about death are signs of complications in the grief process and you must seek professional help.

Thinking about other losses – Your loss can bring up past losses that become tender again. We may also grieve abstract losses that are difficult to define, such as the roles we had with our loved ones — wife, son, caregiver, companion. We long for the future that was taken from us: our retirement together, financial security, enjoying the growth of children and grandchildren. We grieve the future, as well as the past, as we simultaneously struggle through the present.

Questioning – Death is difficult to comprehend, and often seems illogical or unfair. “Why do good people die too soon?” “Why him? He was never sick before!” As we struggle with these questions, we’re challenged to look at our faith, our understanding of what life “should” be and search for meaning.

There will be a time when the world is right-side up, our hearts aren’t inside-out and our legs balance us firmly on the ground again. We may continue to long for what was, but we will also enjoy what is and have hope for what can be. On the way, remember to be patient with yourself and with this process of creating a “new normal.”

Call Kansas City Hospice & Palliative Care’s Grief Support Services at 816.363.2600 if you’re concerned or have questions about how to cope with your loss.


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