Bereavement can be the most devastating event that we will all go through at some point in our lives. Desperation, anger and denial are just three of the emotions we can feel. Despair is another feeling that is common in bereavement, life will never be the same for someone when they’ve lost someone. Grief can knock someone off their feet and take them to a place so low, it can feel like you might never get back up. In fact, some people never do.
Life changing events
But what if experiencing a bereavement actually resulted in a positive event, something that was life changing. What if it meant that your life changed ultimately for the better and you actually became a better person and grew as a person?
Enter Post Traumatic Growth. It’s not a new phenomenon. People have been taking tragedy and turning it into something positive since time began. It is the story of hope, that we all might grow through suffering, that we might emerge on the other side changed. This has become more topical recently as many of us have lost loved ones in the pandemic so there are a greater number of bereaved people around us all. So how can personal growth happen after trauma?
In the 80s, a study was carried out in the psychology department of the University of North Carolina which studied how people can gain knowledge through surviving difficult experiences, including bereavement. The term post-traumatic growth was born out of these academic studies. One of the results of this study was the creation of a measure for Post-Traumatic Growth, the index of post-traumatic growth, which is still used today.
Post-traumatic growth, defines positive changes that can occur in the aftermath of a trauma. These changes can sometimes be the result of a struggle with these traumatic events. Regardless of what shape the trauma takes, it could be bereavement, an accident or a natural disaster, but the processes and outcomes are very similar.
Five areas of growth
Typically, there are five areas of growth that people report after they have experienced trauma of some kind:
Increased personal strength
Increased connection with and compassion towards others – this can lead some people to volunteer for a charity that is connected to their loss
Greater appreciation and gratitude for their life, especially the small things – Trauma can put lives little annoyances into perspective
Finding a new mission in life – Bereavement can lead people to set up a charity to honour the life of their lost loved one or to fight the injustice they felt from their loss.
Experience an existential change, engaging with questions about the purpose, meaning and value of their life – When any of us face death it can make any of us question life
Different studies have suggested that 58-83% of trauma survivors report a positive change in at least one of the above areas which all contributes to possible post-traumatic growth in a person.
How does it happen?
The process begins when the traumatised person is able to calm their anxiety and feel less overwhelmed by their emotions so they can think more clearly.
There follows a period of deliberate reflecting, putting things together, with the help of a person, who could be a therapist, a friend or family member. The key is that this person needs to be accepting and willing to be on the same journey.
Post-traumatic growth is not happiness, it can coexist with distress and sadness. It can be an experience of loss and mourning so painful that it changes a person for ever. It’s easy to say: ‘Life is great’ or ‘Be kind’ but feeling that in the aftermath of a major trauma is a completely different way of understanding, a life changing way of understanding.
Can we all experience post-traumatic growth?
Many of us define trauma in terms of how it impacts our core belief system. Most people aren’t aware that they have a core belief system, until that belief is shattered, when they experience a traumatic event, such as a bereavement. There is a difference between resilience – where people bounce back from adversity, and go back to how things were before, and post-traumatic growth. People who are resilient don’t grow in the aftermath of a certain event, because they don’t need to grow – they’re resilient to the trauma.
For others, post-traumatic growth may be possible, if they have the right support around them. But for others, a narrative of growth may not feel right if they have experienced loss after loss, it just might be a step too far for some of us and just getting through every day is hard for some people. A person’s capacity for post-traumatic growth may depend on their personal experiences, resources, and structural advantages – or lack of them.
Post-traumatic growth does not happen only with individuals, but also in systems, communities, nations and what growth might be possible for us, all, after Covid? We will become kinder and closer as a society? Let’s hope that some good can finally come out of tragedy, the world be a nicer place if it did.