“Mental health professionals have a long history of looking only at what’s wrong with human functioning,” says psychologist Anna A. Berardi, Ph.D., who directs the Trauma Response Institute at George Fox University in Portland, OR. “But if you ask people, ‘Have you been through something difficult and come out the other side stronger, wiser and more compassionate?’ the majority of us would answer yes. That’s powerful proof that as humans we’re wired to grow as a result of hardship.”
Here’s a case in point: Five months after her daughter’s death, Candace Lightner held a press conference on Capitol Hill, announcing the formation of MADD, Mothers Against Drunk Drivers. In the 33 years since then, the non-profit’s public advocacy work has helped save more than 300,000 lives.
Candace’s response to the tragic loss of her daughter is what experts call post-traumatic growth, or PTG, the phenomenon of people becoming stronger and creating a more meaningful life in the wake of staggering tragedy or trauma. They don’t just bounce back—that would be resilience—in significant ways, they bounce higher than they ever did before.
The term PTG was coined in 1995 by Richard Tedeschi, Ph.D., and Lawrence Calhoun, Ph.D., psychologists at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte. “We’d been working with bereaved parents for about a decade,” Richard says. “They’d been through the most shattering kind of loss imaginable. I observed how much they helped each other, how compassionate they were toward other parents who had lost children, how in the midst of their own grief they often wanted to do something about changing the circumstances that had led to their child’s death to prevent other families from suffering the kind of loss they were experiencing. These were remarkable and grounded people who were clear about their priorities in life.”
None of these parents, Richard stresses, believed that their child’s death was a good thing. They would have given up all their newfound activism, insights and altruism, their re-ordered sense of what really matters in life, to have their child back. “The process of growth does not eliminate the pain of loss and tragedy,” Lawrence says. “We don’t use words like healing, recovery or closure.” But out of loss there is often gain, he says. And in ways that can be deeply profound, a staggering crisis can often change people for the better.
What forms does post-traumatic growth take? Post-traumatic growth tends to occur in five general areas. Sometimes people who must face major life crises develop a sense that new opportunities have emerged from the struggle, opening up possibilities that were not present before. A second area is a change in relationships with others. Some people experience closer relationships with some specific people, and they can also experience an increased sense of connection to others who suffer. A third area of possible change is an increased sense of one’s own strength – “if I lived through that, I can face anything”. A fourth aspect of posttraumatic growth experienced by some people is a greater appreciation for life in general. The fifth area involves the spiritual or religious domain. Some individuals experience a deepening of their spiritual lives, however, this deepening can also involve a significant change in one’s belief system.
PTG is testament to the human spirit. While grieving, anger, sadness, rage, etc. are all natural and appropriate responses to loss, we don’t have to stay stuck in this downward momentum. As Viktor Frankl noted, suffering without meaning is despair. Suffering with meaning is life-giving.