I wouldn’t have given it a name, the gut-wrenching, upside down and inside out change in my life. But I was at a weekend women’s retreat led by a well-known author and speaker whose son had been sentenced to life in prison for killing a pedophile, and she called the rocking of my world my “new normal.”
At the time, all I could think was, “What the heck could be remotely normal about transforming in an instant from being a wife to a widow and single mom? I don’t want a new normal!”
Many of us squirm over the term “normal” for implying that we’re all alike and our lives are parallel. Nothing is further from the truth; we’re all amazingly unique and our lives are different in a hundred interesting ways.
And wherever your life is at today, that is your normal. So my normal went from being a wife and “mom-and-dad” to a new normal of widow and single mom.
If you are in a season of raising young children, or a single woman living out your career dreams, that is normal for you right now. If you are newly married, or have grown children and grandchildren, or have worked for that same company for many years, that is your “normal” for this season.
However, in every life there are disruptions—major ones—that flip our normal upside down and inside out. A husband who announces he wants a divorce and moves out, a cancer diagnosis that comes just as you and your husband begin living out your retirement dreams … those are unexpected and painful events that push your life in a completely different direction overnight.
Life changes can be planned—or unexpected
Sometimes the dramatic changes aren’t unexpected or bad—like getting married, having a child, or packing the last (or, admittedly, any) of your babies off to college. But they’re nonetheless life-altering and challenging.
Some changes are ones you purposely make. Perhaps you have finally decided to get help dealing with an alcoholic spouse or a troubled teen; situations like these will require you to relate differently to your loved one in order to help them. Or maybe you got your dream job and it’s clear across the country from the only home you’ve ever known. Your motives and goals are great, but the new places you’ll find yourself in might feel strange or uncomfortable.
When you settle into your new life—single motherhood or widowhood or survivorship or empty nesting—you will find yourself living a new normal.
When I lost my husband, I couldn’t turn back the clock. I couldn’t change any of it, fix any of it, run away from it, or hide from it.
I had to learn to live in it, to muster up the grit and grace to accept and function with a “new normal.”
I had another difficult transition, although one with positive undertones, six years later when my only child moved across the state to finish college. Coming home to a house that was not just empty of her, but also void of most of her clothes and personal belongings, was initially excruciating. It took time to get used to the silence, the lack of her treasured companionship and the ability to care daily for her as I had done for 19 years.
All of us have faced or will face a “new normal” in our lifetimes, many of us more than one.
If you are in a season of adjusting to a new normal, below are some practices that might help. Underneath those are some tips for any of you walking alongside someone who has suffered a loss or trauma or other type of dramatic change in their life.
1. Don’t make any major changes apart from those forced on you. For example, don’t move to a new house or new town just to escape—especially if you have children. Keeping your environments familiar is both nurturing and healing, even if it doesn’t feel that way at first.
2. Find and talk to other women who have either walked the same road ahead of you or who simply love you enough to listen without trying to fix you … and who won’t get weary of doing so.
3. Be kind to yourself. Refuse any self lies like, “I’m the only one this happens to” or “I deserve this” or “I did something wrong.”
4. Don’t write or accept any prescriptions for grief. Grief can be seasonal rather than linear and it is different for every person and for every event in an individual’s life. No two widows or divorced moms or empty nesters or single women are going to process and settle into their new normal in the same way.
5. Every new normal will re-frame your life. It will change you. But remember that no matter how resistant you are or how hard it is, it can make you stronger and healthier if you let it. Hopefully, one day it will allow you to help another woman settle into her new normal.
For those of you walking alongside someone experiencing a new normal:
1. Allow the person who is struggling or suffering to tell their story or share their feelings without trying to fix them or tell them how you would cope. When they feel safe and they’re ready, they will ask for your advice or ideas. Don’t say, “I know how you feel” or compare stories even if they’re going through a similar transition to one of yours, because we truly don’t know how others feel and no two people process major life events the same way.
2. Be patient with them. Healing takes time, especially after trauma.
3. Some of us are more resilient than others. If you’re one of those women who recover more quickly from trauma or life changes, don’t judge someone who doesn’t. Never tell them they don’t have enough faith or strength.
4. Remember that all of life changes us, so don’t expect your friend to “bounce back” to exactly who they once were after a major life event. Hopefully, they will ultimately be changed for the better, and your love and grace can help that happen.
The woman who first introduced me to the term “a new normal” is author and speaker Carol Kent. After her only son was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole, her life took a permanent detour. She and her husband have been adjusting ever since, moving to Florida to be near the prison, starting a new organization for prison inmates and their families, and sharing the faithfulness of God with anyone who will listen. I highly recommend her book, A New Kind of Normal: Hope Filled Choices When Life Turns Upside Down.
If you’ve experienced a life change that has you questioning your identity, you’ll need to listen to this podcast: As Life Changes We Ask, What Defines Me? – 156.