CPN | Normal Broken: The book I didn’t know I needed

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Normal Broken: The book I didn’t know I needed

How can something so universal also be so utterly isolating? That’s the paradox of grief. Even though most of us will experience it in our lifetime, it can feel like nobody understands the nuances and texture of the pain we’re experiencing. We can feel alone when we’re in crowds, in our home, and even when we’re with someone else who shares intimately in our loss.

In Normal Broken: The Grief Companion for When It’s Time to Heal But You’re Not Sure You Want To, Kelly Cervantes makes us feel like maybe we aren’t so alone after all. Kelly comes across as a bestie, a guide, and a researcher, helping us see that our loss isn’t something we need to “get over,” rather something we can honor as a testament to our deep love.

Though I devoured the book in a couple of sittings, it isn’t simply a book to be read. It’s meant to be a workbook, inviting us to reflect on the multitude of feelings swirling inside of us and journal about them in the pages provided at the end of each chapter. Writing prompts are there for those who want them, but we’re given permission to write about whatever each chapter brings up for us. And oh, does Normal Broken bring up a lot.

From the outset, Kelly assures us that even though healing might feel like a betrayal of the person we lost, it actually doesn’t mean we’re forgetting. Healing and forgetting are not synonymous. Instead, our loss and the scars it creates should be honored, celebrated, and even decorated. As Mary Oliver wrote in Uses of Sorrow: “Someone I loved once gave me  a box full of darkness. It took me years to understand that this, too, was a gift.”

Grief is so multifaceted, and Kelly explains that like life, it doesn’t have to be measured in milestones. Kelly knew her daughter Adelaide, who had severe medical needs, wouldn’t reach the typical milestones her friends were looking for in their children. Things like rolling over, taking a first step, saying “mama” and “dada” weren’t what Kelly was waiting for. Instead, she celebrated “inchstones,” the small things that might otherwise be overlooked, like lifting a foot while in a gait trainer or sitting unassisted for a few seconds. Later, when Adelaide’s condition was confirmed as neurodegenerative, Kelly began noticing and honoring her own inchstones. 

Kelly credits this inchstone philosophy with carrying her through the last months of Adelaide’s life and then guiding her through her grief process. “Celebrate getting out of bed, getting dressed, doing laundry, or leaving the house,” she writes. “Celebrate meeting up with a friend, feeling emotionally stable, or making it through a day without a nap. By focusing on my inchstones, I was able to lighten the weight of life’s grander pressures.”

And indeed the smallest thing can feel like pressure in the midst of grief. Kelly writes about the complexity of interacting with other people when we’re grieving. Even the most basic questions, like “how many kids do you have?” can be devastating. She tries different strategies to protect herself from being ambushed by seemingly harmless small talk, like rehearsing conversations and inviting discussion about Adelaide so she’s not caught off guard. She finds grace in realizing that people’s awkwardness around grief is about them, not her, and that she can control how their comments affect her. 

The hope, of course, is that by reading about Kelly’s transformation with things like socializing, we might be able to jumpstart our own transformation. A trusted guide can hold our hand and walk us through the bumpy road, but also help us see a clearing up ahead that we might have struggled to find on our own.

Normal Broken is bursting with lessons and advice, but they’re never offered in a pedantic way. Over and over I nodded along as Kelly brought up thoughts or uncomfortable feelings I worried were mine alone. 

“Who was I if I wasn’t Adelaide’s mother? If I wasn’t the caregiver for a medically complex and disabled child who required my near-constant attention and devotion?” Exactly! 

“I simultaneously hated and loved how much I was needed.” Yep! 

“How do I want to be remembered? Not as a mother who lost her child and lived in debilitating grief forever after. I want to be remembered as a woman who fought for her child and then went on to fight for others, who loved deeply, laughed loudly, and shared generously. Likewise, I don’t want Adelaide to be remembered solely as a child who suffered and died. This is part of her story, but is not her whole story. She was also a brave and resilient little girl who clung to life, warmed the heart of every person she met, and loved a good snuggle right up until she didn’t.” Precisely.  

Kelly also validates the paradox at the very core of grief. It’s okay to not be okay and it’s okay to be okay. 

We can be so hard on ourselves as grievers. Why aren’t I able to be productive? Why do I hate everyone who isn’t in the throes of grief? Why can’t I stop eating? But we also feel guilty when we’re functioning well. How can I smile or laugh or dance when my person is gone forever? 

We beat ourselves up for grieving too much and also for grieving too little. We need to be gentler with ourselves, to treat ourselves as we would a best friend. “Embrace the beauty in your broken bits,” Kelly writes, “unpack the grief, and let yourself be okay because inevitably the not okay will be back. And if some happy sneaks up on you one day while you’re driving around with the windows down and a jam on the radio, give it a big old hug and enjoy the ride.” I’m trying, Kelly, I really am.

Whatever stories or lessons resonate with you most, the biggest takeaway from Normal Broken is just that – we are broken, yes, but we are normal broken. The details of our loss are surely unique, but there are every day in every community on every street, other people who are experiencing profound loss, too. 

“I’m not under any misconception that I am special enough to be the only person feeling the way I do. My grief, my anger, my determination, my joy, and all the thoughts that come along with them are not unique to me,” Kelly writes. They’re not, as it turns out, unique to any of us. And knowing that can make all the difference. 

The goal is to find other people who are normal broken, people who “get” you – the ones who will sit with you in the pain and dance beside you in the joy. Reading Normal Broken may be just the thing to get you started.

Jessica Fein writes about the mingling of joy and sorrow, mothering a child with a rare disease, and staying rooted when life tries to blow you down.  Listen to her podcast, “I Don’t Know How You Do It,”  including her discussion with Kelly Cervantes.

Her memoir, Breath Taking: Rare Girl in a World of Love and Loss, is coming in 2024 from Behrman House Press. Visit her website or connect with her on IG for real talk about love and loss @feinjessica

Jessica is a CPN Blogger in Residence, an opportunity available through support from Sanofi.