What kind of growth comes after trauma or loss? Many trauma survivors say that they’ve “grown” after their loss, but what does that actually mean?
19 year old Jane experiences the death of a close friend. Intrusive images and thoughts bother her for months. She keeps wondering if she could have done something to prevent it. She can’t help but feel guilty that she wasn’t a “better friend”. Once a faithful churchgoer, she hardly knows what she believes any more. Above all, it’s hard for her to imagine her future after this tragic event.
Jorge is a 38 year old who became paraplegic in a car accident at age 22. He would love to have the use of his legs again, but will also readily admit that his life has become far more meaningful since the tragedy. He thrives in a tight community of athletes with similar injuries and has made it his mission to help others recover through sports.
What is post-traumatic growth? How does it happen?
When a trauma occurs it means a dramatic change in our circumstances. The future, as we imagined it, has been stolen away. We find ourselves caught between the torn edges of what was and what now is. It’s surprising how often that struggle creates some positive changes along the way. It seems that once our reality is shattered, we have an unusual opportunity to build a completely new one with new motivations, new decisions, and a change in outlook. Researchers find that these changes occur in these areas:
- A greater appreciation for life and a new set of priorities
- Deeper, more intimate relationships
- A greater sense of personal strength
- A recognition of new paths available to us
- Spiritual development
Think about that list. We’d buy a dozen self-help books on any of these topics if we thought they would actually help us change in these areas. The irony with trauma is that it’s the thing would avoid it at all cost and yet it often brings us exactly those things we want most in life.
The Paradox of Growth and Trauma
Post-traumatic growth is never as simple as “this bad thing happened and now my life is wonderful”. Any new appreciation for life now lives side-by-side with the ongoing distress and sadness of loss. Trauma survivors will usually tell you that they would fore-go all of this ‘growth’ if they could reverse the loss that they had. At the same time, they may have some gratitude about the changes that happened to them after that horrible experience.
It’s as if the trauma makes us capable of carrying opposite viewpoints within ourselves. Trauma survivors will report a greater awareness of vulnerability, yet with a greater acceptance of the unknown. They may have a stronger feeling of spirituality that now coexists side-by-side with an anger or questioning of God or His existence. They may be more cautious (i.e. driving, health, etc.) but at the same time, less worried in general about “what could happen”. They may feel like all of their plans have come to ruin while at the same time have a new sense of clarity and purpose.
In my next post I would like to explore the changes that happen after the loss and how they helps or hinder the post-traumatic growth.
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