“At the heart of it, our family grew because of trauma, not despite it, and during our journey, we were blessed with many unexpected, unintended positive outcomes. Perhaps that’s not the “right” thing to admit as a parent who lost a child, perhaps that’s not the “expected” thing to say as a brain tumor survivor, but it is our experience.”

– Susan Angel Miller, Permission to Thrive: My Journey from Grief to Growth

Discovering Post-Traumatic Growth (PTG)

I had expected, in the years following my daughter Laura’s death and my own brain tumor diagnosis, for our family to crumble. We instead continued to parent our two younger daughters and take pleasure in our lives. Our response to tragedy didn’t seem either “normal” or socially acceptable. And, I’d felt guilty about that until I learned about Post-Traumatic Growth, a positive psychology concept coined in 1995 by two professors at UNC-Charlotte.

Turning Trauma Into Strength

We had experienced a parent’s worst nightmare. Yet, we had gained a new appreciation for life, increased our compassion for others facing hardship, and increased our gratitude for what we still had. We had deepened our relationships with family and friends, and gained more self-confidence in our ability to handle future challenges. And, most importantly, we had discovered a new purpose and direction in our lives. These positive outcomes stemmed from us struggling with the painful emotions and wrestling with their meaning.

Embracing the Emotional Paradox

The extent and timing of an individual’s healing journey should not be compared to one another or judged. Grief does not follow a prescribed calendar or road map. And, growth does not mean the absence of distress, courage doesn’t exist without fear, and we often carry sadness and joy at the same time. That is the bittersweet reality and beauty of being human. 

We experienced PTG, but that does not mean the heartbreak is behind us. Emotional growth and distress often occur at the same time. Joy amidst suffering. Gratitude mixed with guilt. Life is not an “either-or” proposition. Emotions encompass the uncomfortable and messy. We would eventually learn to live with that messiness.