In 2016, Susan (not her real name) suddenly and tragically lost her husband of over 41 years in a car accident. Her grief was intense, since they had been together since college, had very intertwined lives, and were extremely close. In the following months, Susan felt supported through her grief at her workplace and by her family, but also began to stretch outside her comfort zone. First, she moved to a home by the beach – something she and her husband had always planned to do when they retired. Then, slowly, Susan began to reach out to others through MeetUp Groups and get-togethers with neighbors near her new home. Six years later, she has a new romantic partner, a full social life, and loves her new neighborhood. Although her grief for her husband is still present and at times intense, Susan has moved forward into a new beginning. "I feel almost like a different person,” she says. "Before Allan died, I could not have imagined I could build a new life for myself this way."
What Post Traumatic Growth is…
Susan has moved towards Post Traumatic Growth (PTG), which is experienced by many people after loss and can be life-changing and life-affirming. PTG is not the result of suffering but rather a parallel process that takes place as a person begins to adapt to their new normal. It can result in positive changes in outlook, greater feelings of interpersonal connectedness, and heightened spirituality. It can also foster greater confidence, as individuals may master skills or overcome emotional difficulties that previously seemed insurmountable. For example, a wife whose husband always did the driving may find herself getting behind the wheel for the first time. A husband whose wife maintained their social life may find himself reaching out to others and forging new friendships, despite initial anxiety. A person with no active spiritual practice may find deep value in beginning to attend church or a synagogue, reading spiritual texts, or meditating. In all these cases, a person's worldview has expanded; they may feel more connected, confident, and empowered. A devastating loss has initiated adaptive changes that result in palpable personal growth. It is a fluid process through which we redefine our views of ourselves and the world as we move through grief.
… and what it is not.
PTG does not follow every adverse event or loss, only the kind where our core beliefs about ourselves and our worlds are disrupted. It is not a retrospective appreciation of change, like losing a job but later realizing it was "meant to be" after finding a much better position. It is not a “prize” for experiencing loss and does not "make up" for the loss. Although they are sometimes confused, it is not the same as resilience, which is an inherent personality trait rather than a transformative life change resulting from a specific event. Resilient individuals already have ongoing fluid senses of themselves and their place in the world; thus, they are less likely to radically reconsider their identities due to a loss. Neither is better or worse – they are just different ways of processing and moving through grief.
Fostering Post Traumatic Growth
Certain factors, some within our control and some not, may influence whether we experience PTG. For example, women and younger people are slightly more likely to exhibit PTG, and some genetic factors may predispose us to it (although research in this area is in its infancy). Being in good physical health, having strong social support, and being open to new experiences and connections can tilt someone towards PTG. However, it is not always so easy to predict who will or won’t experience it. Even those perceived by themselves or others as rigid and unadventurous may move into PTG. It is important to keep an open mind as we look at loss in our own and others’ lives and remain curious about how PTG might manifest, rather than having a prescriptive plan or firmly held expectations. By doing so, we allow for possibilities we might not initially think possible.
Using a self-report scale called The Post Traumatic Growth Inventory can be very helpful in assessing whether we or others have experienced PTG. This tool asks us to rate our responses to statements like "I learned a great deal about how wonderful people are" and "I am more willing to express my emotions." Completing this inventory may help us discover how we have changed positively in ways we hadn’t yet realized. Reexamining our lives before and after our loss can be a reflective exercise that can bring comfort and self-confidence and help reassure us if we are worried that we have stagnated or are stuck.
PTG will never replace our grief or diminish the deceased's impact on our lives. Susan still misses and mourns Allan, even as she enjoys her new relationship and recreated life. In the last six years, she has stretched herself past her previous limits and boundaries through her suffering. Her journey is a model showing that we can continue to evolve and grow even in the face of life-changing losses. PTG holds the promise of this opportunity even as we work through the most challenging situations in our lives.