A common theme I’ve noticed working with people who have been devastated by tragedy, loss and grief is a question of, “Why me?”. A fair question that I’ve asked myself. Who or what is in charge of the way lives unfold on this planet? What differentiates one path from another and the obstacles one faces a long what way? How can one possibly explain the meaning behind the loss of a child or heinous act of abuse? A gift to the pregnancy, infant and child loss community, Carly Marie of Project Heal, speaks truth on the hamster wheel of trying to understand the why. She invites us to shift the focus from something one will probably never understand to setting the intention to find what cultivates healing.
The meaning and order that I had given to existence had been shattered by my experiences. I knew that I wasn’t perfect, but that I’d dedicated so much of my life to trying to help other people. I’d given my all to make this world a better place in a small, but significant way. I followed Deepak Chopra’s 7 Laws of Spiritual Success. I believed in that positive thoughts brought on positive outcomes. What did I do to deserve this? I had lost faith that things would work out for the best and that my loved ones would be okay. My dog suddenly had to have have surgery, and I was terrified because I was unsure if he would die too. Another significant attachment figure, gone without warning. There had been a certain order to the world for me, so I couldn’t find an explanation for what had happened to my family. I felt angry. I was angry with God, angry with the world, angry with the way in which I thought the world worked.
Post traumatic growth is a term used a lot in the mental health community to describe the psychological change process that results from having overcome profound adversity. It’s true that one may not know how strong they really are until they have no other choice, but try to continue to live through the hardships. When completely knocked down, there is a process of putting oneself back together piece by piece that can result in a more whole, authentic self than one started with. At one point, I’d began seeing an EMDR therapist due to the increasing trauma symptoms I was experiencing. I remember feeling put off when one of the first things she asked me was what I could “learn” from my experiences. I felt uncomfortable with the question because I didn’t know the answer. I was no where near being ready to identify the noble truths gained through my pain and loss. I didn’t feel particularly riotous. I’m happy I went back because she’s a really good therapist. Still, I look back and try to remember if I’ve ever asked this of a client in the beginning of their journey. Did anyone have the same sense of bewilderment at my lack of understanding?
I first learned of the book, “When Bad Things Happen to Good People” by Rabbi Harold Kushner offered up as an option for a mother struggling with her religious beliefs after her stillborn son. She couldn’t understand how the God she had been worshiping could take her son away. She no longer wanted to go to church because she hated God. She talked about the fact that if God makes miracles for some people, why not others? How does God choose who to create miracles for and who to bestow tragedy upon? I clearly remember her words because they stirred something up inside of me. I was so tired of hearing about how this was God’s plan for my life. Rabbi Kushner is put in a position to challenge his own beliefs and answer questions in a new way with his son diagnosed with a degenerative disease and dying. His perceptive comes from parent, human being and religious leader. He questions the fact that God causes miracles or tragedies. Would God intentionally plan a death of a child or a terminal illness on a father? Would God willingly choose to answer one person’s prayers and ignore another? What about the suffering within certain communities and nations? What differentiates one community from another in God’s eyes? He offers an explanation that God can provide comfort, strength and support through all of these intense mountains and valleys of life, but does not cause them. He suggests that God is with you when a loved one dies, but did not choose that death as part of a grand plan.
The position is controversial as some view it as taking power and meaning away from God. People find comfort knowing that there is something/someone greater than themselves with a path for the future of the universe. Each individual will find meaning in what happens in life their own way within their own belief systems. I’m sharing something that was helpful to me, but it may be something completely different that will help another find peace. There’s about as many ways to find meaning as there are to love. Growth isn’t calculated, so there’s no correct formula. I don’t think it can be taught or told. As a therapist, I support people on their own journeys through. I’ve had to crawl out of the dark, empty place within myself to recognize the phenomenon as growth. I won’t ever have the answer for the why. That’s my answer.
At the end of Rabbi Kushner’s book through his deep sorrow and despair at the death of his son, he communicates that he had indeed gained something through his experience. He’d become a better Rabbi. He’d learned a tremendous amount about himself and his own faith when it had been tested to the limits. He had become a better person and offered more of himself to humanity. He then says that in the blink of an eye he would trade it all back for just one more moment with his son. He’d gladly go back to being an okay Rabbi who cared for people, but had no idea what faith shattering pain felt like. He would become the less enlightened version of himself in a heartbeat without looking back. I know that I’ve changed because of my experiences. I’ll never go back because I can’t. If I could, I would.
It’s tough to have other people tell me what I’ve gained or how this was meant to happen in order to change me. It’s a bit like when someone says something negative about a someone you love. You can talk about how someone may be negatively impacting your life. When someone else agrees with you or formulates their own comment, you may feel a sense of defensiveness for that loved one. The same can apply for post traumatic growth. The trauma or loss doesn’t deserve to feel celebrated or put on a pedestal for the sake of personal growth. It doesn’t mean that the growth experience through adversity is not real. I witness people’s resilience and growth most everyday. I try and celebrate that resiliency, rather than dictate what was gained from their world shattering experience. I can only narrate my own story.