Is There an Upside to Tragedy?
Yes, say psychologists. It’s called post-traumatic growth.
At 16, my nephew, Kent—an engaging, energetic Indiana kid—was taken by a wildfire-fast leukaemia. The cancer spread with such ferocity, he died within 24 hours of being diagnosed—and probably, the doctors speculated, mere months from the time it took hold. In those boggy, quicksand weeks that followed, as we rummaged numbly for explanations—how was he able to run a five-minute mile just two weeks before? why didn’t we know?—other disturbing questions looped through my mind: How would my sister, Pam, survive? Would she ever be the same?
By now, eight years later, I have answers. Pam is not the same. She’s stronger, surer of herself, more spontaneous and open to new experiences and even quicker to laugh. Not that she hasn’t struggled. For years she was struck by disorienting panic attacks, and there are still days when she’s stopped in her tracks by grief. Even so, she has used her sadness as a springboard. The year after Kent died, she and her husband held a 5K race in his honour; since then, the annual event has raised more than £250,000 for the Leukaemia & Lymphoma Society.
Watching Pam’s evolution has been deeply moving, and, as it turns out, there’s a name for it: post-traumatic growth (PTG), a term coined by Richard Tedeschi, a professor of psychology. Dozens of studies have shown that trauma due to brain and other injuries can change in profound ways. And it goes well beyond resilience, or bouncing back from adversity. “With post-traumatic growth, a person who has faced difficult challenges doesn’t just return to baseline, which is what happens with resilience,” explains Tedeschi. “They change in fundamental, sometimes dramatic, ways.”