Lessons from death: There is no real ‘normal’

It turns out “normal” is a relative term. It’s taken me a while to come to grips with this concept, especially since my husband Jim died from pancreatic cancer in December 2010, but I think I’ve finally accepted it.

Whenever something happens to us — no matter how deeply we are affected — we strive to get back to “normal.” We think it is our happy place — a place of peace and contentment.

But normal is far from peaceful. Normal is fluid. It flows from the rhythm of your life in the moment you are in, then to the next moment and the next. It reshapes and reshapes again as the importance of events, people and situations changes.

We see normal as a haven where if we could just get back there, everything will fall into place. Everything will be “all right.”

I constantly am saying to myself, “I can’t wait until things get back to normal.” But what I really want is to get back to my familiar routines.

Routine is a familiar order of events or processes in our lives. What I’m really seeking is some predictability. Not total predictability though. That would be boring. But basic predictability as opposed to what I perceive as constant upheaval.

Quincy (left) and Bullet -- son and father -- settle themselves beside my lawn chair I keep inside the dogs' fenced area.

Quincy (left) and Bullet — son and father — settle themselves beside my lawn chair I keep inside the dogs’ fenced area. I sit and watch the dogs play and explore, and enjoy interacting with them.

As the owner of four Brittany dogs, I’ve learned the importance of routine because of how it affects the dogs when our usual pattern is interrupted for whatever reason.

The dogs’ behavior becomes more erratic and they are more needy of my time and attention when their routines are disrupted. They are more intense. Kind of off-kilter.

If the dogs are in their crates more than normal because we have company or we are on the road for a dog event, there is this burst of kinetic energy when they are let out or we get home that just flows and flows until they are settled back into their familiar routines. 

Then they crash and sleep. Their indication of peace and contentment.

I think it is sort of the same when a person has suffered great loss. Nothing is familiar. All routines are disrupted. Normal has taken a major shifting in one direction or another, as normal has a tendency to do when it responds to life events. And we so much want our familiar routines.

But life will never be the same after the death of a loved one. 

Not only has normal shifted, which we know is fluid anyway, but also our routines have shifted. And that throws us off balance. Off-kilter. Like the dogs. 

So how do we cope with that?

I suppose there are multiple ways, but I redefined my routines. Since the definitions in my new reality no longer fit with my old routines, I simply changed them. It took time, but I did it. 

There are some things that remain the same of course. The trash has to go out to the roadside on Wednesdays. Bills are paid on a schedule. The dogs eat every 12 hours. I work at a full-time career on a schedule more or less. Certain things need to get done at certain times. 

But those are not the routines that are interrupted.

I am talking about eating alone as opposed to eating with your spouse. Planning vacations by yourself. Taking over all of the household and yard chores and errands because the person with whom you shared those tasks is gone. Relying on friends and other family for backup when something major happens. Experiencing the joys and burdens that come from having and loving family alone rather than sharing them.

I am talking about the routines that help define who we are as people and how we respond to situations. The shattering of identity, self-confidence, and our perceptions of our core traits that occurs with our loved one’s death. The redefinition of our responses to crisis and to commonplace alike.

The remaking of what it means to be “me”.

It’s been one thing to learn to accept Jim’s death; it has been totally another to accept my own.

Then to be able to pick up some of the pieces of my old self to put together with my new self and claim it all as my new normal. And to accept that the reconstructed “me” has some new routines that make it possible for me to find peace, joy and love of friends and family again.

When Jim died, I knew things would never be the same. It felt like part of me had died too. But the human spirit is very resilient and does not easily give up its struggle to live and to feel alive. And out of those deaths has risen a stronger person who has been able to redefine and make room for key routines that make life possible and even enjoyable.

Dealing with the ever-shifting “normal” has been much easier for me since I’ve learned to embrace some of my new routines, and I know Jim would approve of the changes. Because ultimately, he just always wanted me to be happy.



Julie Harris

About Julie Harris

As a longtime employee of Bangor Daily News, I have served many roles over the years, but I now have a dream job as Community Editor. I live in Hermon with my four Brittany dogs: Sassy, Bullet, Thistle and Quincy, who keep me busy in various dog sports. I was widowed at age 51 when my husband, Jim, died of pancreatic cancer.