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Child Development

The New Normal

Life after loss is the new normal

[a special guest blog by Jessica Handler, author of Invisible Sisters: A Memoir]

The phrase "the New Normal" is a term from the ‘grief and recovery' world that I've surprised myself by taking to heart. I don't take easily to slogans. If you come at me with something along the lines of "it's all good," I promise you I will snarl. (It's not all good. Some things are less than good. Other things are just okay. Iceberg lettuce, for example, or that brown blouse I thought I liked.) I do, however, feel right at home with diagnostic language, along with family oddities like, "If my grandmother had wheels, she'd be a streetcar." Hence, my fondness for the phrase, "New Normal."

The phrase rang true to me the first time I heard it, during the question and answer session after I spoke to a Hospice volunteer group about my childhood as "the well sibling," the oldest of three girls, the only one not terminally ill, and now, as I enter middle age, the only sister living.

Finally, I thought, a "normal" that naturally includes me, one that I don't even have to practice for. As a kid, I had to remind myself to say, "deep bruise," not "hematoma" around my kick-ball playing friends. As a teenager, I fought the desire to pull up a stool in a friend's breakfast nook and chat about the state of America's future with their parents while everyone else slipped down to the basement for some Pink Floyd and make-out sessions. I was, in teen parlance, not entirely "normal."

While there doesn't seem to be an acknowledged originator for the term, "New Normal" was mentioned right here in Psychology Today earlier this summer in a blog referring to raising grieving children. After a loss, a family or individual tries to return to life as they knew it before the death of a loved one, but they find, of course, that it's impossible. This life after loss, the survivorship itself and how the survivor lives that life, is "New Normal."

What's normal in the first place? In college, my friends and I joked incessantly about the concept. We loved the pun from Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein, with goggle-eyed Marty Feldman (again, what's normal? His protruding eyes were the result of Graves' Disease) as the keeper of the jar of brains labeled "Abby Normal."

Discovering that there's an actual term for how I've learned to live after my sisters' illness and deaths, as well as my father's, is a relief. It's my late-blooming validation of the way I naturally evolved into creating a full life after loss. Grieving never stops, but it abates, and in those moments when it creeps back—when I watch a friend with her healthy child, when I write holiday cards to people not my sisters—I'm left trying to understand how my childhood as the "well-sibling," with the particular responsibilities and identities I accepted as "normal," shaped me as an adult. The things I still don't do comfortably—keep house, play a sport—are as much a part of my "normal" self as my ability to slice pills into careful half-doses, hear difficult news, or be good company in a hospital.

My life so far has shaped who I am, and that, along with how I learned to make my own life a good life after my sisters' deaths, makes me normal.

Jessica Handler's first book, Invisible Sisters: A Memoir, has been named to the list of "Twenty-Five Books All Georgians Should Read" by the Georgia Center for the Book, and is Atlanta Magazine's "Best Memoir of 2009."

She received the 2009 Peter Taylor Nonfiction Fellowship for the Kenyon Review Writers' Workshop, has been a Creative Writing Fellow at the Hambidge Center for Creative Arts and Sciences, and received special mention for a Pushcart Prize. Handler teaches writing in Atlanta. Visit her website at

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