Litsa and I have long had a bee in our bonnet over the rhetoric around grief self-help. Not all grief self-help of course, but specifically that which puts forth the notion that, with the proper perspective, a person's grief will become a vehicle for "transformation" "renewal" "self-discovery" or "metamorphosis". Although I can't claim that these ideas are patently untrue, I can say that they are often misleading.
In truth, growth and transformation are not attained by simply setting one's mind to it. More importantly, one may feel they have experienced growth in their grief, yet still feel intense pain over the loss. It's important to talk about the true nature of posttraumatic growth so people understand that it's not an easy path out of or around pain. On the contrary, it is only through confronting and struggling with pain, that such growth and transformation can exist.
What is posttraumatic growth (PTG) exactly?
Prominent PTG researchers Tedeschi and Calhoun (2004) define posttraumatic growth as...
"...positive psychological change experienced as a result of the struggle with highly challenging life circumstances."
What are highly challenging life circumstances? Going back to our discussion of trauma, we are reminded that there's a lot of subjectivity when it comes to traumatic and challenging experiences. For example, something that seems immensely troubling to me - like the loss of a job, death of a pet, or divorce - might be far less disturbing to someone else. Generally speaking, an event might be considered highly challenging when it threatens a person's understanding of the world and his or her ability to function within it.
The type of hardship that leads to PTG is always significant, meaning it comes with an immense about of pain and distress. Rarely, if ever, does the experience of growth lead to a sense of preference for the trauma having happened. Many of you have experienced the death of a loved one and, as I'm sure you can attest, you'd trade all the growth in the world to have your loved one back. Experiencing PTG is of little consolation in grief, and I suspect this is why sentiments that aim to comfort through promises of transformation and self-discovery often fall flat.
Posttraumatic growth does not nullify or lessen grief and so you should not look to it as an end point to pain. Instead, PTG should be conceptualized as something that co-exists with distress or, more specifically, something that only exists because of distress and subsequent coping. Posttraumatic growth evolves from the same processes people use to cope with grief. So, in effect, posttraumatic growth is an unexpected, but beautiful, byproduct of pain.
It should be noted that, although humans have long understood their capacity to experience PTG, research on this psychological phenomena is relatively recent and evolving.
It's also important to note...
Not everyone experiences PTG:
Posttraumatic growth is not a given. For various reasons, not everyone who has been through a trauma will experience notable PTG. Although research indicates that instances of PTG far outnumber reports of psychiatric disorder like PTSD, depression, or anxiety, many people will have significant and ongoing difficulty coping with their losses and many will ultimately feel they have experienced little to no growth as a result of their highly challenging experiences.
PTG is not the same as resilience:
The term resilience is often used is relation to grief, so it's important to draw the distinction between this concept and PTG. Resilience typically refers to an ability to withstand hardship and remain psychologically healthy despite adversity. PTG goes beyond maintaining baseline functioning (i.e. resillience) and refers to improvement in one's ability to function and adapt.
How does posttraumatic growth occur?
Even if a detailed description of posttraumatic growth were within the scope of this article, I am by far not the best person to explain it. If you have a mind for research articles, you can head here and I will also link to a few other resources related to PTG at the end of the post. Although this concept is complex, I'd like to make a few basic points about the process of PTG.
The type of event:
A wide range of experiences have been documented as resulting in PTG. Generally speaking, events that lead to PTG are those that shake a person's fundamental understanding of themselves, others and the world; specifically with regards to predictability, purpose, justness, benevolence, and safety. So in order for posttraumatic growth to occur, a trauma must be significant enough to destroy a person's foundation because only then can he or she put it back together in a way that feels enlightened, deeper, and enriched.
The necessity of grief:
Through coping with death and grief, one learns lessons about themselves, the world, and others. By facing the reality of trauma and loss, a person may discover flaws in their previous assumptions and the need to refine their beliefs and understanding accordingly. In contrast, when one does not face their experiences, perhaps through avoidance or other maladaptive coping, they are less likely to find ways to create meaningful narratives around their trauma and more likely to experience negative psychological outcomes.
You know this already, grief exposes you to a reality you never knew existed. Through the grit and persistence required to survive and make sense of the senseless, you find new strength and meaning. Without this struggle - the sadness, anger, despair, meaninglessness, and fear - growth would never occur. The domains of PTG (detailed below) are all paradoxes to loss....because you understand life is precious, you treasure it more...because you know what it means to feel vulnerable, you've learned how to be strong...because you've lost someone you love, you treasure others more...and so on. Although the pain of these losses remain, in time you discover what comes next.
Support and disclosure:
Positive social support can aid in facilitating PTG by providing an outlet for disclosure of trauma related memories, thoughts, and emotions. This type of personal interaction opens the door for support and feedback from others and stimulates dialectical thinking about the meaning of one's experiences. It has been found that, in addition to disclosure in the context of one-on-one interaction and support groups, written disclosure is also helpful in facilitating PTG. Sadly, support systems that discourage disclosure and emotional expression are linked to poorer outcomes such as depression.
What does posttraumatic growth look like?
Tedeschi and Calhoun (1996) outlined the 5 major domains of postraumatic growth. As someone who has experienced a highly challenging event, you may be able to identify with one or more of these growth domains.
1. Greater appreciation of life and/or changed sense of priorities:
Growth in this area might mean you...
- Have a greater sense of appreciation for what you have
- Experience a shift in priorities
- Redefine what you consider "important"
- Have a greater appreciation for the "small things" in life
2. More intimate, deeper, or warmer relationships with other:
We'll admit that we focus a lot on the bad and the ugly of support systems after a death, but the truth is that many people have really wonderful grief-related personal interactions. Growth in this area might be experienced if you...
- Feel a greater sense of compassion for others
- Experience compassion from others
- Are able to focus on the relationships that truly matter and ignore those that are harmful or unhelpful
- Feel the experience has helped you to "find out who your friends are"
- Realize the need to cherish your relationships
3. A sense of increased (or discovered) personal strength:
Many people have the sense that if they've survived the death of a close loved one, they handle anything. Growth in this area might be experienced as...
- Greater sense of self control and emotional balance
- An enhanced ability to cope and adapt
- A greater sense of perspective during times of hardship
- Increased feelings of independence and confidence
4. Openness to new possibilities in life:
Often the realization of vulnerability and the discovery of new strength and perspective can lead people to make new or more meaningful decisions regarding their path in life.
5. Spiritual growth:
Whether you fancied yourself a religious person at the time of the trauma, struggling with existential and spiritual questions can often lead to a deeper, more refined sense of belief and understanding.
For more information on posttraumatic growth, check out the following resources:
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