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Loss, resilience, and post-traumatic growth

How many times have we heard that a cancer patient has declared that they wouldn’t change a thing, because living with the diagnosis has unleashed life-changing clarity and wisdom? From afar, this attitude sounds too good to be true. How is it that the turn of mind and heart that accompanies a life-threatening illness can actually be so good for us?

It feels at first like putting a false positive spin on a life-threatening illness, reaching for a feel-good result; those cancer patients making lemonade out of lemons.

Let’s compare that with what we encounter in grieving. How often do we hear about a grieving person declaring that they wouldn’t change a thing about the loss, because the loss unleashed life-changing clarity and wisdom? Not often, in my experience. In the world of loss, we still want it not to have happened, we still want who or what we lost to still be here.

A recent offshoot of the Positive Psychology movement makes an attempt to explore this, suggesting that for some people exposed to traumatic events, the ultimate impact is growth. They call it Post-Traumatic Growth (PTG as opposed to PTSD, post-traumatic stress disorder). They attempt to study it by tracking people who have undergone trauma, yet seem to survive and even thrive in its wake.

Others doubt it, a Psychology Today blog post by Anthony Mancini, Ph.D. drawing the distinction between perceived growth and actual growth. Just because a subject reports feeling stronger, he asks, how do we measure whether they actually are?

I’ll leave it to the academics to sort these issues out, to figure out what qualifies as a trauma, exactly how to measure growth, etc. I am more interested in the lived experience of people who grieve, and their expectations about how their loss will impact their lives going forward.

My interest is in the resilience I’ve seen in my clients as they grieve – the ability to bounce back with loving support, to embrace the fact that people die but relationships live on, to create legacy projects that continue the influence of their loved one in the world, to live out a new appreciation for every day. I can’t quantify that growth the way a researcher could, or measure it, but I can verify that it is real.

The book I’ve written to share what I’ve learned as a witness and as a griever myself calls those results gifts. The title will be Lost and Found: Discovering the Hidden Gifts in Grieving. I want people who grieve to expect those gifts, and watch for them, and grab them when they arrive. And that is not positive spin, but real growth.

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