I often wonder how people survive catastrophic events. The lose of a child, the lose of a parent feels totally overwhelming to me. This article in The New Yorker this week looks at how our minds are able to bounce back and even grow in the face of death, even traumatic loss. It certainly explains how some people are able to actually thrive in unimaginable circumstances.
Some dedicate themselves to the cause of their trauma, to education and charity work that prevents others from exposure. While others develop a deeper appreciation for life and the relationships they have, which propels them to love more. The adage: Is it better to have loved and lost or better to have not loved at all, now seems to have a clear answer. I’m always thrilled with the answer is love! Check it out:
From The New Yorker:
Psychologists have long studied resilience—the ability to bounce back and move on. But post-traumatic growth, which has been documented in hundreds of studies, is different; it’s what happens when trauma changes and deepens life’s meaning. In his recent book on the phenomenon, “What Doesn’t Kill Us,” Stephen Joseph, a psychologist at the University of Nottingham, describes victims of trauma experiencing enhanced relationships, greater self-acceptance, and a heightened appreciation of life. “To only look at the dark side and negative side is to miss out on something very important,” Joseph told me recently.
The existence of post-traumatic growth suggests that, while the pain never vanishes, something new and powerful is likely to come. As my mother once told my other brother, Andy, and me, “It’s like, after a spring gets pushed all the way down, it rises even higher.”
Tedeschi and Calhoun had spent a decade surveying bereaved parents. Despite their pain and suffering, the couples consistently reported that they had undergone positive personal transformations, too. “One common theme,” Calhoun told me, “is that they say, ‘I still miss my child, I yearn for my child and get depressed, but I’m a different person—more compassionate and empathetic.’ ” That’s what my parents experienced. They launched one of the country’s first chapters of Compassionate Friends, a support group that had begun in England for bereaved parents. They helped start the Tampa area’s first hospice, organized conferences on death and dying, and conferred with Kübler-Ross, Elie Wiesel, and others. In the nineteen-fifties, my parents had been social activists who had participated in sit-ins; my mother had empowered women in childbirth as one of the country’s first Lamaze educators. Now, helping others who were suffering to survive their losses became crucial to helping them through their own.
Before he died, my father alluded in an e-mail to this period of their lives. He suggested that I read Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s memoir about the kidnapping and murder of her baby. “Lindbergh said that suffering alone doesn’t make for wisdom,” he wrote. “One has to remain vulnerable, open to more suffering and to more love.” My father drew my attention to a portion of the book where Lindbergh attributes her survival to the support she received from others. She expressed the idea that, as my dad put it, “you gotta have at least one person whom you love and who loves you, and talk to that person and be supported by that person.”
Not everyone experiences growth after trauma. In recent years, psychologists have studied survivors of cancer, war, and terrorist attacks and found that there are certain traits that increase its likelihood, such as optimism, extroversion, and openness to new experience. Clinical treatment can also facilitate progress. In my family, all these factors played a role. The public nature of our saga, moreover, had the effect of convening around us an unusually supportive community.
Studies show that, in the end, somewhere between thirty-five and seventy-five per cent of trauma survivors experience some form of post-traumatic growth. “We say that, if you do experience traumatic events, it is quite possible you will experience one or more elements of growth,” Calhoun told me, before adding, “Our wish for you is that you don’t experience trauma at all.” For my family and me, that wish remains. But we know it’s one that will never be granted—and so we must, as my father wrote, decide every day the manner in which we want to live. My brother Andy and I have been shaped by that way of thinking, too. We’ve always been haunted by Jon’s death, but, perhaps for that reason, we share a drive to get the most out of the lives we have. For Andy, that meant becoming a musician. I pursued my own adventures and, eventually, a career in journalism.
In 1975, three years after my brother died, my mother took to her journal to reflect on what she had found for herself: a way of living with death that brought new meaning to life. “I treasure what I treasure,” she wrote. “I am aware of the temporariness of relationships and life itself. I am aware of what matters and turns me on. Did Jon give me this gift? I believe so. My sweet, sweet, sweetness. I thank you for that. I carry you with me forever unseen now, just as I did when you were snuggling in my uterus … unseen but filling my belly and my mind, part of our family even before you were born, part of our family now after your life. Thank you for this capacity to love and understand. Do you still know that you are loved?”