Monday, February 25, 2013

Post Traumatic Growth


One thing that's been hard for me to think about, much less talk about has been the growth I've experienced since Dave died. It seems wrong, somehow that such an awful event would spur me to experience positive emotional growth unlike I've ever before experienced. I suppose I feel some shame about that. Shouldn't someone who's lost her spouse feel that nothing positive came from or after it? (Says the shaming part of my brain.)

I was watching a TED talk today, by Jane McGonigal. In it she explained how she was nearly suicidal after a brain injury had her bedridden for months. Because of her low point, she came up with an idea (an app that helps people develop resilience) that is now helping people everywhere and she explained that some scientists might call this experience of hers post traumatic growth.

She said that some people who have suffered a serious trauma say that it changed them for the better.
The five most common ways they mentioned changing are...
1. My priorities have changed - I'm not afraid to do what makes me happy.
2. I feel closer to my friends and family.
3. I understand myself better, I know who I really am now.
4. I have a new sense of meaning and purpose.
5. I'm better able to focus on my goals and dreams.

When I saw this list, I burst into tears. It was a list I've mentally compiled in the past 20 months for my own growth. It was like seeing a mirror held up to my development. I cried because I was grateful for all five ways I've changed and yet how can I be grateful for it if it came about because the person I loved most in the world died? Holding both of those ideas in my brain hurts.

Then, she said that what's really amazing is that this list is almost exactly the opposites of the top five regrets of the dying, which are...
1. I wish I'd had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
2. I wish I didn't work so hard.
3. I wish I'd had the courage to express my feelings.
4. I wish I'd stayed in touch with my friends.
5. I wish I'd let myself be happier.

It's as though for some people, the traumatic event unlocked their ability to live in a way that would reduce regrets.

So, something that I wish hadn't happened and that broke my heart also somehow managed to reset me so that I finally, for the first time in my life, began to live more in line with what REALLY truly matters.

I still worry about what others think of me, work too hard, forget about my purpose and waste my time, hide some of my feelings, and feel like a grumpy jerk off and on, but I can honestly say that since Dave died, I've made growth in all five areas. BIG growth.

And while I'm sure I have a touch of post traumatic stress disorder, too, I think I also have a huge dose of post traumatic growth.

I suppose the reason I struggle to admit this is that a part of me thought that if I loved Dave I wouldn't be able to equate anything positive with his death. But, here's the thing. His death and how it's affected me are two completely separate things. There isn't anything positive about his death (obviously).

It might be similar to the strengthening of your other senses if you lose your sight. Going blind is not good. No one could argue that there's anything positive about the FACT that your eyesight is gone. But, your super human hearing and sense of touch are positive things. They don't make the loss of your eyesight okay. They don't make you glad you lost your sight. They're separate entities.

Dave's death was a terrible traumatic thing that happened to him AND to me, and to so many other people in his life. But what has happened to my emotional landscape since he died has been both bad and good.  I'm traumatized. I'm still exhausted all the time. I miss him. My heart is broken. There are chunks of my brain just missing now, AND I'm noticing how much closer I hold the ones I love. How much more I allow myself to be vulnerable, ask for help, offer my help and just generally open myself up. I don't take things as seriously, complain as much or allow myself to worry endlessly about that which cannot be changed. I don't work quite as hard as I did unless it feels good to work hard. I feel a greater sense of purpose and I have been able to see my worth in ways never before possible. I have begun to care for myself and treat myself lovingly in ways I never before could.

What's really sad is that because I have this shame around admitting any positive changes in me, I don't get to talk about it much (except with my therapist, and now with you). I don't get to revel in it much or be truly proud of it. It makes me cry to talk about it, and not necessarily a happy cry, either. It's linked to his death and that makes it hard to acknowledge. It makes it hard to hear others tell me how well they think I'm doing, or how much I've changed for the better.

But it's undeniably there, and hearing that others have experienced it too makes it easier for me to admit that it's there. And anyway, it's not as though I need to add shame to my list of hardships. The best way to ease shame is to get it out in the open so it can't fester in the dark, so that's what I'm doing. I'm telling you.

Have you noticed any post traumatic growth of your own?


  1. in my emotional life, no - I have gone backwards and twisted. But creatively, possibly professionally, there are really good things happening that are directly because sudden accidental death ripped into my life. And that is bizarre. I get excited about a piece of writing or part of this project and then my mind kind of shudders, and I think - really? How can you be excited about something that is happening because matt died? Part of the landscape of crazy-town, living with both of those things, knowing they are deeply related and deeply separate.

    1. Exactly, it's crazy town living with both.
      And it's not as though there have been only good changes to my inner world. It's twisted me up and sent me backwards in some ways too, but it's so interesting how much easier it is for me to talk about those things than it is to talk about the positive changes. Makes me wonder how many of us don't talk about it.

  2. Wow, this post came at the right time. It's been just over 15 months since my loss, and my emotions have been all over the place. The last couple of months I do feel as if I'm in a better place. Met someone new who can potentially be someone special in my life, positive changes at work, etc. But it also breaks me that all of this is happening without Felix here.

    But he's not. I know he is "here" but he's not HERE. I needed him when work was growing more and more difficult several months ago and now that it has changed for the better, I wish he was here for me to talk about it, celebrate...

    Then this potential new guy...who I adore. He's been a great friend so far. I would love to see where this goes. But at the same time it's like...ughz...I think of the plans and dreams I had with Felix and now I have to one day have those plans and dreams with someone else. It hit me particularly this weekend, after a weird conversation with potential new guy that had a lot of emotion behind it. And looking for sketches for my former brother in law and instead stumbling across lists and plans my late hubby wrote in the hospital before he died. He was robbed of our future. I was robbed of our future but I still have MY future. He has NOTHING. And that is when the guilt sets in. I try to shake it off but it's hard.

    1. It is incredibly hard. You're right, that's what's so unsettling. I have my future, but he has nothing. At least not that I know of.

  3. Cassie,
    Thanks much, this is a wonderful post. I loved that Ted talk as fact, I think you liked it on my FB glad it resonated with you!! I also recall speaking with my therapist about my guilt and the worry that if I felt better, I was somehow betraying Tim and even more frightening, starting to forget or leave him behind. And I agree how much I hated being told by others how great I looked or how well was I supposed to look shitty or be acting crazy in order to validate my grief and loss? At 39 months post the worst trauma of my life, I can honestly say that I have begun to be okay with people who say how well I am doing and how great I look because I have finally allowed myself to acknowledge that it does not take away from losing Tim. You ARE doing well, if I may say so, at this juncture in your grief journey to be at that place where you are acknowledging your growth and self-worth. Yeah! I propose a toast to being okay with Post-Traumatic Growth!!!

    1. I second that!
      And yes, I got that TED talk from you!

  4. Yes. I noticed a new sense of meaning and purpose soon after Dave died, but I still haven't figured out what to do with it...

    And I'm glad you added this paragraph:
    "I still worry about what others think of me, work too hard, forget about my purpose and waste my time, hide some of my feelings, and feel like a grumpy jerk off and on, ..."
    Because sometimes I feel like I'm sliding back to my old unchanged self, and I don't want that to happen. (So it helps me to know that this happens to others too.)
    I WANT losing my Dave to have changed me, and for the better.
    I want to be a better person, not a bitter person.

    1. I love that, Valerie. You're absolutely right.
      And yes, I feel myself sliding back into my old self too and I don't think it'd honor Dave's death at all to do so.

  5. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  6. Great post Cassie!!! Sorry it took me so long to read it and comment. I struggle with this too. ANY positive thing that is a result of my husbands death - I have toruble acknowleding it or feeling good about it. Its something I talk to my grief counselor with a lot, and its really common, so we are not crazy! lol.

    1. Thanks, Kelley!
      Always good to hear that we're not certifiable. Yet.

  7. Wow Cassie, I surely can identify with your post in so many ways. You touched areas of emotions only we can get and understand and nod & I can say yes that's right, that's how I feel, or felt. Thank you for sharing, RoseannK

  8. I recently found this great blog, so I can't help but share. My husband was killed in a collision while riding his bicycle almost two years ago(I have most of the symptoms of PTSD). There have been a lot of injustices surrounding it, and I can't accept them. So, I fought back. This entailed public speaking on a few occasions, and meeting with a few public officials. I am naturally shy. I do not like to be the center of attention. But there was no way fear was going to stop me so I deal with it. My husband would be shocked, and I hope, proud. I am just not afraid like I used to be. And since the rest of me will never return to normal, I think maybe I won't be as afraid as I used to be. This is a good thing, he would be happy about it, he was law enforcement, he did not live his life in fear(we were opposites). I would give anything to go back to my old life, as we all would. But, if we have to accept this awful stuff, we might as well accept what good we can get out of it, as uncomfortable as that is.