After something awful happens…a death, a divorce, the loss of a job or a home or a way of life…we often make ‘returning to normal’ a personal goal for healing. Returning to that elusive ‘normal’ state suggests that whatever has happened to us hasn’t changed us. The logic goes something like this…if we aren’t changed in any way by the difficult experiences we live through, then the bad stuff doesn’t win. We win if we can return to ‘normal.’
In order to achieve this ‘win’, we have to do something with the trauma we’ve experienced. Some people allow their trauma a place in their lives for the short term. They deal with the immediate aftermath of whatever has happened, but once that first to-do list is complete (usually involving the logistical issues associated with their experience) they try to push the trauma back to the farthest corner of their heart and mind.
Other people make the awful experience the center of their lives. Rather than pretend they can get back to a past version of normal, they create a new normal focused on their pain. Since we each process trauma in our own way, there are a million versions of these two styles of coping. But let’s consider these two as we think about our personal experience of living with the impact of COVID-19.
Whatever your world view or political leaning, we’ve all been impacted over the past two years by the global pandemic. Some of us have mourned loved ones, many without the opportunity to offer comfort and care during their last days. Medical professionals have held phones and tablets up for patients to receive parting words from their loved ones. Jobs, businesses, and livelihoods have been lost. Life experiences and milestones for kids have been missed or altered beyond recognition. Grandchildren have been born and held up outside of windows to meet their grandparents. Isolation has been a part of every person’s life in one way or another. How do we process this trauma? Will we ever get back to normal? Will the familiar world return?
No. We can’t get back to the old normal and the world will not return to the way it was before COVID-19 entered our lives. This reality is both the bad news, and the good news.
Traumatic events are by definition, life altering. We can’t help but be changed by the experiences that are so impactful that nothing is exactly the same afterwards. When we set returning to ‘normal’ as our goal after our world has been turned upside down by something awful, we are setting ourselves up for failure. Life can’t be the same version of normal, because of what has happened.
You know things that you didn’t know before…Zoom anyone? Your perspective has changed because of both what you’ve lost and what you’ve learned. You can’t unknow what you now know. This is the reality of life-altering experiences, naivety doesn’t return.
If someone you love has died, your world is altered and won’t ever be exactly the same. If your life has been changed by a disease or violence or divorce or the loss of something not named here…life won’t ever be exactly the same. It can’t be. Which means that the trauma associated with living through the pandemic will change not only our world, but each of us.
What happened to us (individually and collectively) matters. Trying to forget awful experiences can be terribly tempting and even seem momentarily possible. The trouble is, ignoring pain does not remove the traumas we’ve all lived through. On the other hand, making that trauma the only important thing in your life prolongs the pain. Healing lies in integrating (rather than forgetting or being consumed by) what we’ve experienced. When we allow past experiences to be a part of our lives, we can utilize those lessons learned and tools gained in our present, to craft a meaningful future. Rather than fight to return to a past version of our lives, what if we explore the ways the pandemic has changed us and make our goal the building of a life for the new version of ourselves that has been born through this life altering experience?
This concept of the interconnectedness of past, present, and future is called integration — the blending of all our experience into a single whole. This simple idea provides a life- changing lens of perception that can be used as a dynamic healing tool for mending our hearts and living a full and meaningful life. In my experience — in my life, my research, and my work with others, particularly related to widowhood — I’ve found integration to be the foundation upon which transformation happens.
Our past, present, and future are irrevocably connected. As we make our way through our daily lives, we count on the continuity between past, present, and future to provide a frame of reference for daily decisions, large and small. Access to resources and experiences from our past shape the decisions we make, the quality of the relationships we have, and the way we process and acclimate to every life experience. We are constantly processing the past and creating the future, while living in the present. This cyclical pattern shapes and reshapes our lived experience to provide our minds and hearts with ever changing information about the world around us.
Living through a pandemic has changed you. What have you learned about yourself? How has your perspective changed? Have your priorities been shifted by the challenges of the past two years? How are you different right now, and importantly, what does this version of you need to live a meaningful life?
When you allow yourself to ask these questions with an open mind, the answers might surprise you. We have the power to redefine normal. We don’t have to participate in the attempt to return to a past version of our world. We’ve lived through too much, learned too much, changed too much, for an old version of normal to be a real option.
Here’s the good news, when we allow ourselves to be changed by the experiences that break our hearts, that acknowledgement paves the way for healing.
Based on the book Different after You. Copyright © 2022 by Michele Neff Hernandez. Reprinted with permission from New World Library. www.NewWorldLibrary.com