Who I am.

I write about the landscape of grief, nature, and the wisdom of fools. The author of four books, my essays, poems, and reviews have been published in over 50 journals, including in the Huffington Post and Colorado Review. I’ve won the River Teeth Nonfiction Book Award, the Chautauqua and Literal Latte’s essay prizes, and my work has been nominated for four Pushcart Prizes and named a notable by Best American Essays. My account of hiking in Yosemite to deal with my wife’s death, Mountains of Light, was published by the University of Nebraska Press. http://www.markliebenow.com.

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Grief's New Normal

Recently I used the term “the New Normal” in a post to describe the time when we’ve put our life back together after the death of a loved one. This irritated some people. Is the New Normal a specific term or a generic description? Does it imply to some that we’ve stopped mourning and moved on with our lives? 

The Urban Dictionary says the New Normal refers to the state of being after some dramatic change has transpired that replaces our previous expected state of being with a new one.

To me, “a normal day” means an average or typical day, and this changes after a death. Radically. Now we think about death and grief every day, when before we rarely did. Maybe we could call it the New Typical, the ABnormal, as David says, or the AfterNormal, a term being used for living as our climate collapses.

Language is a tricky thing with grief because our society has forgotten how to talk about it. As we patch our new language together, we’re bound to trip over each other’s sensibilities, even if we are trying to say the same thing. This means that we can learn from each other’s insights, and that is exciting.

The term doesn't mean that we are okay with what happened, because it will never be okay with us that our loved one died. There is nothing normal about a young person's death, a cancer death, a stillborn death. And we’re certainly not normal after a loved one dies.

Our definitions of reality, of what is normal, do differ. If we sat in a chair with our feet up and thought about it, we might define reality as being the bedrock beneath what we fill our days with. Reality is what we have to do versus what we choose. 

What we think of as normal may be different than those who are struggling to survive depression, violence, poverty, single parent homes, or drug abuse. How women grieve is different than how men grieve, yet all women do not grieve the same way, nor do all men. What is normal in the Third World differs from what is normal in the First. What it comes down to is each individual's situation, past experiences, and perspective. But no matter who we are, when a loved one dies, what we thought was normal before now exists in a different room, and that door is closed.

What we thought was normal ceases to exist when a loved one dies. The world changes. After the initial shock, our days settle into a new typical, a decoupage of leftover pieces that aren't glued down and keep shifting.

Someone thought that the dissent to the term was coming from the younger generation that hadn’t lost anyone close before. The reality is that this first death has upended their understanding of life. Those who are older, and have lost a number of people, begrudgingly accept that death is part of life, so they don't fight that battle as much. This doesn’t mean, however, that they like it.

When my wife died in her 40s, I hadn’t lost anyone close. With her out-of-sequence death, my entire view of reality shifted, and I confess that I haven’t fully regained my trust in institutions or in the goodness of Life. My life certainly isn’t what it was before because I’ve added in living with grief. My normal day is now different. Every day I’m aware that people can easily die from illness or accidents. Most of my younger friends don’t carry this fear.

When you’re grieving, you quickly learn how important it is to be honest about what you’re feeling and thinking, because no one can magically divine this. No one is going to barge into your room and demand that you talk about your grief, although that would be cool. And as you find community with other people, what you look for is the immediacy of their hearts. You trust what they say, and you help each other endure this horrible loss.

Hold on to this. Continue to be honest about who you are. Continue to take care of those who are suffering. This is the only new normal that matters, and it's also the old. The terms we use are bird twine floating on the ocean.


  1. Mark:

    I really enjoy your essays.

    However, did you really think it was necessary to include the line "Reality for women and minorities is different than it is for white men". Realities can be different for any person regardless of race or sex.
    We all have our struggles and challenges, no one person or group holds a franchise on it.



    1. Thank you for the feedback, Rich. You made a good point, and I've made adjustments in the text.