Grief literature is filled with the concept of the “new normal”. It is usually portrayed as the goal for people grappling to rebuild their lives after a traumatic event. The idea is, in a situation which appears so surreal – the destruction of your previous life by the death of a child (or other loved one) – you will, with the passage of sufficient time, self-examination, and the care and concern of others, arrive at an equilibrium, the new normal, in which you will find some kind of peace. This will differ for every person. It is the Holy Grail of grief therapy. After two years since Jake’s death, there are aspects of my daily life that may appear normal. I say appear normal. But some aspects of this state of being, things that affect me, things I think about, are anything but normal. Here are some of the things that have become ‘normal’ for me in the past two years.
1.) The most random and seemingly unconnected things can bring me to tears.
Oh yes, there are all those triggers out there, many of which I can see coming, that I am aware of. But lately, I find myself weeping over seemingly unconnected things. Seemingly, until I take a moment to work backward to find the kernel of sadness. For example, I was watching a football game the other day. The game was just starting, and as some minor celebrity or other sang the National Anthem, I found my eyes welling up with unstoppable tears. It isn’t that Jake and I shared a love of football, didn’t spend idyllic Sundays watching the games together, he actually hated it, more accurately was supremely indifferent. When he was a kid, he called it Crash-Smash. Later he ridiculed it saying he didn’t want to watch millionaires in shiny pants get up off the ground for three hours. Always so eloquent. I’m not that great a fan either. Don’t have “my team”. For me, it is more like mental knitting, except at the end I don’t have a sweater to show for it.
So I sat there, with those fat, liquid tears dripping down my cheeks and tried to figure it out. And it hit me. They also sing the ‘Star-Spangled Banner’ before baseball games. When Jake was younger, we used to get last-minute tickets to Dodger games online, and went to many games together. Mostly day games, as I had my own business and could afford to take the time off. We always had great seats, usually right behind home plate. We sang the anthem with gusto together before every game. During one game, Barry Bonds fouled a pitch back into the stands behind us, whereupon it rolled down several rows of empty seats and ended up between my feet. I picked it up and handed it to Jake. In all the years I have been going to Dodger games, it is the only foul ball I ever came close to. I still have that baseball.
So that was the connection. That stupid, ‘Oh Say Can You See” years later on TV brought me right back to Dodger Stadium and those Boy’s Days so long ago without my even realizing it. Other equally random things, a passage in a book, a sound, an image, affect me in unpredictable ways. I never know when one of these hidden triggers will strike; there is no way to guard against them. The usual ambushes strike less frequently, but with no less a vengeance.
2.) Every happiness has an asterisk.*
There is no more unbridled joy. I am never really excellent. There is a persistent undercurrent of melancholy that runs through my life. Perhaps I am not allowing myself to be happy without reservation, but that is part of my new normal. Things I once relished, have but a lukewarm attraction. We don’t go to concerts much, rarely a movie, parties only with close friends if at all. I can be at a gathering or a party, seemingly enjoying the company for the moment, but in the back of my heart, there is a missing piece that won’t let go. I have come to accept this.
There are also those times where T. and I are doing something together that Jake would have loved, and can wordlessly acknowledge that to each other with a look or a tear. There are things we did with Jake, museums, the JPL open house, certain restaurants, places, that we find it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to do. It will be difficult to travel to Hawaii, Ensenada, New York, anywhere we travelled to as a family without sadness coming along in our carry-ons. I have come to accept that I will never be as happy as during our Hawaiian vacations. Ever. Those carefree days lazing in the warm sunshine, swimming together in the limpid, silky ocean. Sleepy afternoons in the tiki hut, not saying anything, just being together. True paradise on Earth. Paradise lost. So those travels, whenever we get around to going, if we do, will be tempered with that feeling of loss, of longing for those days when my family was whole and happy together.
3.) I have very little empathy for other’s misfortunes.
When others tell me of some minor tragedy they have experienced, I nod, make the appropriate noises to indicate I sympathize with them, but inside, my reaction is more like, “whatever”. I understand each person experiences tragedy differently, and the scale of that tragedy varies for every individual. Even when someone tells me of the loss of a mother or father, someone who has lived a full and complete life, it is difficult for me to whip up real empathy. And don’t expect much sympathy if you have lost a wristwatch, had your car dinged in a parking lot, your drain got stopped up, or any of the million little setbacks we encounter every day. I just can’t equate that to what I have gone through, we have experienced the unthinkable. It is not to belittle someone else’s loss, or to compare their situation to mine. As I say, each person feels grief in different ways to different degrees. But somewhere down inside, I am comparing. Hey, I am deeply sorry your dog died, but give me a break. I think that having succumbed to such agony for so long, the absolute pinnacle of grief, I have tripped an emotional circuit breaker to keep from shorting out completely. Not only do I not feel the same empathy for others, I don’t feel the same joy or excitement I did before Jake’s death. (See above) Perhaps it is a defense mechanism, but maybe my pain has drained my reservoir of emotions and there isn’t much left. Everything is at about a 4 or 5 on the scale and nothing can really move the needle either way past that. The universe has savaged me beyond reason. There is nothing it can do to me that would be any worse.
4.) I am exhausted all the time.
Most people awake from a night’s sleep refreshed and ready for the new day. I find myself almost as tired when I wake as when I went to bed. I don’t seem to recharge fully, and often get up reluctantly, simply because I think I must. By mid-afternoon, early evening on a good day, my battery is depleted, and I am ready for bed. I don’t usually give in, I manage to make it to a reasonable bedtime, but I always want to just climb into bed and pull the covers over my head. I have read that this is a symptom of depression, and I accept that on some level, I am depressed. This whole thing is so damn depressing. What is most disheartening, is that no amount of therapy, medication, or soul searching will bring him back. Others who are farther along on this journey tell me I am still at the beginning, that I am in the early stages of grieving. After two years I am still a novice. When do I get to graduate to veteran griever? Will it make any difference?
5.) Holidays are no longer times to celebrate, merely times to ‘get through’.
I have written about this before, and now it is a permanent state for us now. What are billed as joyous times, when most people gather with family and friends, we now mostly lay low. We acknowledge them, but we don’t truly celebrate any of it. Shabbat, Passover, birthdays, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, anniversaries, Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, the moments where we had the very best of times, remind us that those ‘best of times’ are gone forever. These are truly the worst of times. We have new days to remember too. The days of his passing and funeral. New Year’s Eve will never be the same. All we have left are the memories, which brings me to …
6.) I am angry that all I have of Jake are memories.
I am filled with a quiet rage that I have to ‘remember’ my son. The storehouse of remembrance I possess is all that I will ever have. I won’t make any new memories, won’t share any new experiences, won’t see him marry, raise a family of his own, find success and fulfillment in meaningful work, won’t see any more of his wonderful art, will never bless him, hug him, kiss him, see him. I am angry that I can’t bequeath anything of mine to him, in fact it is the reverse. I have inherited some of his belongings. I use his camera, some of his knives, his tools, read his books. This anger simmers beneath the surface, and has transformed from the blind fury I felt during those first few months, into a constant companion. I don’t know if I can ever forgive the universe, God, Jake, or myself for what has happened. I know it is something I must let go of, but for now, it is just part of my new normal.
• • •
I read that many grieving parents have found a place that is more gracious than the one I inhabit. They have transformed grief into gratitude, have new awareness of the preciousness of life. Perhaps I too will come to that place in time. I already know how precarious life is, what a thin thread binds us to this world. I do appreciate every day I have; I know what a gift each one is. It is difficult to reconcile this with the priceless gift that has been wrenched from our lives, from so many lives. This paradox, the contradiction between the appreciation for each day and the indifference I now struggle with is, perhaps, the most significant hallmark of my new normal, something I may never reconcile. Perhaps in another year, two, five, ten, this current “new normal” will metamorphose into something else. Until then, I will do what I can to bear the unbearable sorrow, something unthinkable that has become the new ‘normal’.