The Myth of Returning to Normal

In the opening scene of the movie Collateral Beauty, Will Smith’s character, Howard Inlet, says to a group:

“What is your ‘Why’? Why did you even get out of the bed this morning? Why did you eat what you ate? Why did you wear what you wore? Why did you come here? … We are here to connect. Life is about people.”[1]

The movie vaults ahead three years after which Howard, a business partner, has lost his daughter to a brain tumor. A careful viewer witnesses in the first few minutes the impact of loss and grief. Howard has changed from an inspiring, hard-working, personable business partner to a depressed, grief-stricken man who ignores his friends, and spends hours at work setting up hundreds of dominoes only to cause them to tumble. Such transformation reveals the profound impact that loss and grief have.

At this point, one of his business associates states that Howard is “not just a boss. He’s a friend. Howard is a brilliant, creative, charismatic guy who used to be fearless. He used to love life and right now he hates it … he lost his child and now he doesn’t care if he loses everything else, and we just can’t let that happen. We have to bring him back.”

In other words, I just want things to return to normal.

It’s a common phrase heard today while we are reeling from a pandemic. But as in Collateral Beauty, such a belief is an unrealistic expectation. When Howard experienced a loss, he was forever changed as he found himself developing a new identity and a new role. If one was a father, as in Howard’s case, he is still a father, but it is different in that his daughter is absent. If a woman was married and there is a divorce or a death, she is identified by society as a divorcee or a widow. If a man lost a limb, society places upon him a new identity, such as disabled, but he may resist that identity and forge a different one. Now, we have experienced losses during this pandemic (e.g., a loved one; job; health; security; protection; identity, etc.), and we, too, have changed. Not only us, but also our culture and even whole world have been altered . . . forever.

In short, loss is a natural change agent. Hence, we are now embarking on a journey of a new normal.

After we experience loss, we may mistakenly think that the journey of loss and grief is like a detour. A road with a detour sign indicates our route has been temporarily interrupted until we are able to return to the normal road. However, the experience of loss and grief is more like a path that we have taken that becomes a new normal route.

Don’t misunderstand me. I am not saying that the new path will be completely unrelated to the previous path. In fact, it may seem parallel to the old normal while remaining a distinct path—a new normal. Thus, Howard may continue to be brilliant and creative, but other characteristics may diminish as new ones rise to the surface. America may continue to embrace individualism, but it may be modified. The reality is: Howard is different and will never again be the same and neither will we.

As states begin implementing protocols for opening up, some of us may erroneously expect that our return to normal will be returning to the old routine. Unfortunately, loss and grief do not usually function in this manner. While we may begin gathering again, such as at a church, a temple, or a mosque, the adherents will not be the same. While we may attempt to plunge ourselves into work to avoid the chaos of loss and grief, research shows that people who are grieving make more mistakes and cost businesses billions of dollars.[2]

Resuming our old routines cannot accomplish the impossible—return us to the old normal.

As people return to places of worship, employment, school, etc., the experience of loss and grief cannot be compartmentalized and left at home. It cannot be packed in a briefcase and deposited by the door until our return. Instead, it permeates our whole being. There is no haven to enable us to escape from it. There is no amount of workload that can erase it. There is no magical prayer that can exorcise it.

Because of the losses of this pandemic, we are entering a new normal, and this new normal is a part of who we are.

If this is so, how are we to respond? How can we be of help to those around us? I offer these suggestions:

  • Validate loss and grief. Grieving refers to a reaction that transpires inwardly, which is experienced physically, emotionally, mentally, socially, and spiritually. Validation starts with educating yourself about loss and grief[3] so that you are able to support the experiences of others.
  • Normalize mourning. Mourning means to take the grief that is inward and express it outwardly. This is most effective if the normalizing begins with you. This is not a time to be like a coach, yelling, “Is that all you got? Come on! You can do this! Push harder!” It is not a time for simply another list of “do this” and “don’t do that.” This calls for more than just a victory chant that says, “We will get through this.” This is a time to mourn so that we can heal from our losses. One way to do this is to share your own story of how the pandemic impacts you.
  • Lower expectations. As we experience this new normal with its accompaniment of uncertainty, feelings of anxiety, fear, anger, etc. may run high. Patience and initiative may be lacking. Cognitively, we may be impaired. Forgetfulness may rise, and distractions may be easily accessible. An increase in physical maladies (e.g., headaches, migraines, back pain, etc.) may soar, and underlying ailments may flare. I offer this from a ministerial friend, who forwarded an email to me that his bishop sent to his ministers, which included this helpful reminder: “[N]o one is operating at 100% right now, and you can’t either, no matter how hard you try.”
  • Be present. That is, meet others in their reality. One of the more healing responses to loss and grief is to allow the other to walk his/her own path of grief, journeying beside him/her rather than attempting to pull him/her to our own path. This is what is referred to as being present to the other, or to utilize the words of Alan Wolfelt, “listening without judging.”[4]

As Collateral Beauty reminds its audience, life is not only about people and connection but also death and disconnection. That is, loss and grief are a part of being human. Let us find ways to allow loss and grief to enhance our connections by mourning together.

As one who holds to the Christian faith, I wonder if there is a way to live out this understanding in the church community.

Is there a praxis, a theology in action, that expresses our concerns, losses, and griefs as a community in relationship with God? This may seem like a curious inquiry in light of the fact that the church has recently celebrated the resurrection. Yet, there is an ancient communal praxis of mourning upon which Jesus and the early church drew, but which is infrequently utilized in our American churches. I am referring to the practice of lament.

Many churches highlight the praise psalms, such as Psalm 100, which begins, “Shout out praises to the LORD, all the earth!” Praise acknowledges that God is working so that at the heart of praise, we are experiencing joy. However, it is said that two-thirds of the psalms are laments, not praise. A lament is a cry in time of need, such as Psalm 60, “Have you not rejected us, O God? O God, you do not go into battle with our armies. Give us help against the enemy, for any help men might offer is futile” (vv. 10-11). The gist is: we are suffering, so we call out to God for help. In light of this, I wonder if this pandemic is an opportunity for churches to reevaluate the theology we are implicitly teaching through our emphasis on praise and our de-emphasis on lament. As Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann points out,

“[A] church that goes on singing ‘happy songs’ in the face of raw reality is doing something very different from what the Bible itself does.”[5]

For me, that difference boils down to authenticity vs. pretense. A church that wrestles in its relationship with God, as demonstrated through communal laments, reveals genuineness. I was raised under the church teaching, “You do not question God. You do not get angry at God.” In retrospect, such teaching seems to advocate pretense out of a fear of displaying a lack of faith. Close relationships experience losses and grief, which include anger, frustration, confusion, etc. Without it, Stephen Breck Reid comments that the “relationship remains superficial.”[6] Thus, it would seem that a church without lament is similar to a life portrayed on social media: positive, exciting, happy, fulfilling, and trouble-free. That is, lacking in authenticity. You see, laments candidly admit, as Reid states, “something is not right.”[7] As such, laments are known to ask “why” and “how long.”

Right now, there is something desperately wrong: a pandemic. And very few remain untouched by it.

While the journeys of grief may vary, each of us have experienced loss in some form or another. The questions on some lips are, “How long” and “Why is this happening,” and for others, the expression of loss and grief comes through demonstrations, or protests. As such, this is an opportunity to educate believers on loss, grief, and mourning and to lean into communal laments within the church through practice. But this calls for trust. A trust in God and each other.

Using communal laments differs radically from bumper-sticker theologies, such as “God is in control.” Such phrases not only seem to deny the pandemic’s magnitude but also keep us a safe distance both from the pain and from others. Such platitudes appear pedestrian as they circumvent entering into the darkness. Laments, however, refuse to skim the surface. They are audacious with a fierce trust in God, willing to plunge into the darkness of the deep. Lament, which is characterized by tenacity with[8] and trust in God, embraces human vulnerability and clamors at the gates of heaven, beseeching God to hear. A communal lament foregoes the pretentious tower of strength before others and connects at the place of vulnerability.

The question remains, “Are we, as a church, willing to take those kinds of risks?” Do we have a trust in God that openly addresses God through lament without fear? Do we have a trust in each other that is willing to grieve outwardly together?

Oh, God we cry out you. Hear us as we pray.


Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

[1]Collateral Beauty, directed by David Frankel (Burbank, CA: Warner Bros, 2017), DVD.

[2] I write of this in the blog “The Fallacy of Letting Go,” June 29, 2017.

[3] Read such authors’ works as Alan Wolfelt, Kenneth Doka, etc.

[4] Alan Wolfelt, Healing Grief at Work: 100 Practical Ideas after Your Workplace Is Touched by Loss (Fort Collins, CO: Companion Press, 2005), “For Helpers,” #87.

[5] Walter Brueggemann, The Message of the Psalms: A Theological Commentary (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1984), 52.

[6] Stephen Brock Reid, Listening In: A Multicultural Reading of the Psalms (Nashville: Abingdon, 1997), 9.

[7] Ibid., 10.

[8] Ibid., 8.