Tragedy is, sadly, a far too-common occurrence in human life. Take our newly-minted U.S. president. You, perhaps, already know the story. In December of 1972, soon-to-be Senator Joe Biden lost his first wife and one year-old daughter as a result of a car crash in which Biden was not involved. (Many years later, he would lose his son, Beau, to brain cancer.) Even to this day, he alludes to them. That isn’t political gambit. That is real.
In recalling the loss of his wife and daughter in a 2015 commencement speech at Yale, then Vice-President Biden said, "The incredible bond I have with my children is the gift I’m not sure I would have had, had I not been through what I went through." Indeed, it was this connection that kept a younger Senator Biden making the Amtrak journey from Washington to his family home in Delaware every day.
Tragedy like this would throw many of us off the rails. Many struggle to return to a sense of normalcy. The ability to see a silver-lining though after tragedy has struck is often due to posttraumatic growth. It arises from grappling with life’s difficulties, be it the loss of a loved one, rejection, or a deep-felt disappointment in one’s professional career. These events rush over us like a seismic wave, separating our lives into “before-the-event” and “post event”.
PTG, as it is commonly referenced in psychology, is lesser known than PTSD, but it is not an uncommon occurrence. In fact, between one-half and two-thirds of people may show PTG, according to Dr. Richard Tedeschi, who with his colleague Dr. Lawrence Calhoun, pioneered the concept of PTG in the 1990s. They theorized that PTG has five areas of specific, measurable growth. They include: appreciation of life, relationships with others, new life possibilities, personal strength, and spiritual change. Those who experience PTG usually show growth in one or more of these areas.
Although not uncommon, PTG doesn’t happen for everyone. This growth is less likely to come to those who have already developed resilience, the mental fortitude to handle hardship. For these people, traumatic events, while difficult, aren’t as earth-shaking. For them, the scars from previous experience serve as mental Kevlar. For others, we may be in such a psychological state that returning to any sense of normalcy is a huge achievement in itself. If we are in this state, growth is less likely to occur.
Tedeschi and Calhoun warn us not to expect PTG from trauma survivors for the reasons listed above. Expecting others to grow from trauma-wrestling can make it even more challenging for some to experience PTG. Whenever we introduce expectation, we also introduce the possibility of disappointment and frustration. Therefore, Tedeschi and Calhoun urge us to be open to others’ experiences and listen with patience and without judgment. When someone is trauma-wrestling, survivors will ruminate, rehashing things again and again. This is actually the mind’s way of making sense of the newly-changed world. Studies have shown that those who experience PTG are more likely to have had friends and relatives who were supportive of this processing. They themselves kept an open mind, without expectation, in regards to the possibility of the survivor’s ability to grow.
In that same Yale commencement address, Biden referenced the “incredible good fortune of (having) an extended family, grounded in love and loyalty” that helped see him through. The tragedy has become part of the tapestry of his life. It is one he references frequently for direction, both in matters of spirit and the mundane. Just this Monday, President Biden harnessed those personal lessons learned so many years ago in comforting the nation as it mourns the 500,000 Americans lost to COVID-19. “We ask you to join us to remember,” he said, “so we can heal; to find purpose in the work ahead; to show that there is light in the darkness. This nation will smile again. This nation will know sunny days again. This nation will know joy again.” Indeed, like these words, the idea of posttraumatic growth gives us all hope, that no matter how unwanted the trauma, with help and healing, we can grow to face tomorrow’s challenges, and find silver-linings and joy.