People use the term “get back to normal” all the time in relation to loss-events.* When my husband had his stroke, when he died, when the world went into lockdown because of the pandemic, when I had my recent brain surgery, people—myself included—said things like, “things will get back to normal” or “are things back to normal yet?” This kind of thinking frames the loss-event as a disruption of whatever constitutes “normal” and makes the return to a pre-loss-event state the measure of success.
But I look around me and see that nearly everyone is dealing with loss of some sort, and I have to wonder, if so many people have experienced loss, isn’t loss normal? In other words, loss-events aren’t disruptions of life. They are life. These events may be disruptions of routines, of ways of thinking, of our understandings of how life is going to unfold, but they are not disruptions of life, unless we define life as only the predictable pleasant things that happen, which is a very narrow slice of what most of us experience.
In addition to recognizing loss-events as the real meat of life, I am pondering an idea from Michele Neff Hernandez’s book, Different after You: Rediscovering Yourself and Healing after Grief and Trauma: the distinction between the good that may come out of a loss-event and the loss-event being seen as good. This is something I have struggled with, going all the way back to my own stroke in 1997. Without exception, I have seen the changes in myself since my stroke as positive: I am kinder, feel more connected to others, and feel more inner peace. I have heard myself tell the story of my stroke and use the words “it was a good thing” or something similar, but I never quite felt like that was what I meant. Hernandez helped me understand that it wasn’t what I meant—that the positive changes in me that came about after the stroke were because I allowed the stroke to change me, not because the stroke was good.
I have similarly struggled with my husband’s stroke. After his stroke, he was so much more open toward me and we were able to be honest with each other about some things that we had held back before. That doesn’t make the stroke “a good thing” or any less traumatic or any less of a loss-event. We both lost plenty with his stroke, including independence, privacy, and identity. I have had a hard time talking about the ways our relationship improved without feeling like I’m saying I’m glad he had the stroke. There is nothing in me that is glad my husband had a stroke.
Hernandez says that when we notice positive impacts that have come out of our loss-events, we may conflate the event with the positive impacts, which I’ve certainly see myself do. She is clear: “Tragic events remain tragic no matter what good arises afterward.” My husband’s stroke at 60, which left him paralyzed, unable to work and engage in most of the activities that had brought him peace and joy, was tragic. Facing that tragedy allowed us to grow deeper in love and to know each other (and ourselves) better. Recognizing the difference between the event and the impacts of facing the event helps me reconcile that something good came out of something so painful and difficult.
After his stroke, my husband and I had incredible joy and happiness. We loved each other more deeply, more authentically, after his stroke than ever before. When I held him as he took his last breath, that was me living life as fully as possible, completely leaning into the pain and joy. I’ve thought many times that the most loving thing I ever did in my entire life was let my husband go. That is not a disruption of life. That is life. Life is all about letting things, people, dreams go.
That may sound dark. Someone who read my writing recently told me that it was too depressing, that nobody wants to think about death. While I understand this point of view, I also think of Oliver Burkemann’s point in 4000 Weeks that all the energy we put into avoiding thoughts about our own inevitable death could be put into actually doing the things we want to accomplish in our lives. Acknowledging that I have a finite amount of time (and no one knows exactly how finite—my husband did not imagine having only a little over 3000 weeks) helps me fight the urge to put off what’s important to me until my life is simpler or less busy.
*I am experimenting with this term to capture the death of a loved one but also other events that could result in traumatic loss—losing a job, a catastrophic health event, a bitter divorce, etc.