Post-traumatic growth: a dark tunnel with a light at the end

Post-traumatic growth–the end of the pandemic tunnel?

I’ve been thinking about that phrase, “The light at the end of the tunnel.” At this stage of the pandemic, I can still see the light, but it feels like this damn tunnel keeps getting longer and longer. Does it feel that way to you?

Or maybe you’ve lost sight of the light altogether.

I hope my words today will help—they are my final thoughts about the Art of Manliness podcast my son, Matt, brought to my attention last month. To catch you up, I first wrote about pandemic grief, and then about the sixth stage of grief, which is making meaning.

But the reason Matt sent me the podcast in the first place was that it referenced something else he and I have in common.

This was our text exchange:

Matt: “Wow! This is that podcast I always talk about. The episode I just listened to is about the pandemic, but from the perspective of emotions.”

Me: “Cool! I’ll listen at lunch.”

Matt: “I WAS NOT expecting it, but they went on to talk about a lot of your book stuff, and just as I was starting to think it, the guy mentions…POST-TRAUMATIC GROWTH!”

Post-traumatic growth—PTG— is what happens when a person grows from trauma, instead of languishing in it, as they might do with post-traumatic stress disorder–PTSD. I had never heard of post-traumatic growth until Matt introduced it to me a few years ago after hearing about it on NPR.

Post-traumatic growth is what happens when a person grows from trauma.

When Matt told me about the segment on post-traumatic growth he heard on NPR, he said, “I have that, Mom. I have PTG.”

After I looked into it, I realized I, too, have post-traumatic growth, twenty + years after Matt’s diagnosis at age eleven with a brain tumor.

Twenty years. It was a long tunnel.

And I didn’t realize until recently, when my therapist suggested it, that I probably had undiagnosed PTSD. Every once in a while, it’s still triggered when Matt hits a snag in life that I am powerless to solve. For example, when his basement got flooded last fall with five inches of water.

With no idea what to suggest or who to call–and it was late in the evening, so who would answer anyway?–I was lost. My husband was out at a meeting. I had just finished a glass of wine and didn’t feel safe driving over to Matt’s to offer emotional support, although he needed it.

It triggered the feelings of helplessness and hopelessness I had when Matt was young and deteriorating before my eyes. That crumbling tunnel was three years long, and the light almost flickered out.

Helplessness and hopelessness–sound familiar?

So when Matt called about his basement, my mind flooded, too:

It was a mistake for him to buy that house. It’ll get mold and he’ll get sick. I wish he didn’t live so far away. (Twenty minutes.) I wish I could buy him a perfect house that would keep him perfectly safe and he’d never have an emergency like this. Then I’d never have to worry like when he was little and I wanted to move us to a desert island where no one would tease him or make him feel bad and I’d love him enough to keep away the hurt and keep him safe and I’m so tired of worrying because I’ve done enough worrying already to last me a few lifetimes.

Yet Matt got his basement pumped out, dried out (mostly), and grew wiser, more confident, and seasoned as a homeowner. I grew too, in reminding myself that my fears are not Matt’s. I grew in understanding that with adversity comes growth, a lesson I hadn’t fully embraced when my children were young.

My difficult motherhood taught me more than I would have learned from the perfect life I had expected. It’s cliche, but I’m a better person because of it—more compassionate, humble, forgiving, wise. That’s part of post-traumatic growth–appreciating the lessons of your experience.

If your interminable tunnel has been too chaotic or lonely or dark to see any lessons yet, I hope you’ll be open to finding them in retrospect, when they often reveal themselves. And I hope you’ll remember that the light is there, even if you can’t see it.

The light is there, even if you can’t see it.

If this rings true for you, if it feels right, feel free to stop reading.


It may not ring true if you’ve lost loved ones during this difficult time when our normal support systems for grief are absent. The loved one was your light. That light did go out.

I have not walked in your shoes, so feel free to close this page, and know that my heart goes out to you. But if you’re open, here are my thoughts:

I believe you are now in a different tunnel, one without your loved one. It is longer and darker and grimier and lonelier than you ever could have imagined. You may not see the light at the end of that new tunnel, so you may believe there is none.

But it is there.

And on the days when you feel you can’t get out of bed or pull on a pair of pants or put a fork to your mouth, all you need to accomplish in those difficult moments is to believe in the light.

Believe it is there. Believe you will see it again. And believe you will reach it, because someday you will get there, and that will represent growth.

The path to post-traumatic growth is paved in meaningful moments.

In the podcast (at around 13:50), grief expert David Kessler, who lost his teenage son unexpectedly, says the path to PTG is paved in meaningful moments. When friends and family call and text and send food and flowers, those are meaningful moments.

Revel in them. Allow them to buoy you. They are reminders that the light exists, even if it’s still hidden.

When you are ready, you’ll create your own meaningful moments—picture collages, memorial gardens or displays, virtual celebrations of life—and you will catch a glimpse of the light. It will flicker on and off for a while. But it will call to you, and you will put one heavy foot in front of the other and slowly, laboriously, painfully move toward it.

Only you can decide if your loss manifests as PTSD, and if your growth feel likes PTG, but those are only labels anyway. What matters is that you climb out of your tunnel, and the you who exits, worn and tired though you may be, has survived.

That is my wish for us all—that we move toward the light, that we survive, that we grow. And the more we support each other in our communities and our world through this life-altering, history-making pandemic experience, the better off we all will be.

We can all support our collective PTG.

“If we take the time to see and understand each other – and to center humanity as a whole with love, care, and generosity of spirit – collectively we will make it out of the pandemic in a position of post traumatic growth.”

There is light at the end of the tunnel. What will it hold for you?

(The podcast doesn’t go into much depth about PTG, so here’s another great resource.)


  1. Deborah Renfrew on May 13, 2020 at 1:40 PM

    Great words, Karen. I have no comment,but thank you.

  2. Ruth Bilodeau on May 13, 2020 at 2:47 PM

    That was beautiful Karen! Thank you from me and many others!

  3. judy lawless on May 13, 2020 at 5:11 PM

    Wow, Karen! Another great and meaningful post. I hope lots of people read it.Do you mind if I share it? I don’t yet see the light at the end of the tunnel, at least in respect of life “returning to normal”, but I have been returning to elements of a previous life that was normal for me, and I’m remembering how much I enjoyed cooking and baking and sewing, even though too much was expected and I seemed to be always tired. Now those things aren’t expected, just appreciated treats, so I can enjoy doing them when I’m in the mood.

    • Karen DeBonis on May 14, 2020 at 6:40 AM

      Judy- I’d be honored if you would share my post! And I do believe the meaningful acts you’ve written about–making masks and those knitted masks extenders, even the baking you’ve done for you and your husband–are what will bring that light into focus. And the luxury of doing them with no pressure! I don’t mean to minimize the bleakness of your tunnel. That is real. But keep doing what you’re doing. You’ll get there.

  4. Gail Boenning on May 13, 2020 at 6:40 PM

    I’ve never heard the phrase Post Traumatic Growth. I love that Matt heard the phrase in the podcast, reached out to you, and said that he has experienced PTG.
    Thank you for opening this perspective for me Karen!

    • Karen DeBonis on May 14, 2020 at 6:35 AM

      Thanks Gail. One of the things that makes Matt’s recovery so inspiring is his search for meaning and inspiration, which he then shares with me. What a gift!

  5. skcasta on May 14, 2020 at 2:54 PM

    I love your writing! I read a lot of your posts. Even though I don’t reply much, I always learn something. The light at the end of the tunnel is what I’m waiting for. I don’t see it close, but I still hope. Last year, my husband and I retired. We moved to Mexico where he grew up. I love it here but I miss the United States and my life long state of Indiana. Now with this quarantine, my fears and depression have really been bad. I worry about friends and family back home. When will I get to return and visit? I watch the news. I want to keep up with the virus news yet I also want to have a clear mind. My son has type 1 diabetes and had it since age 5. He’s an adult now. He lived with us the last 10 years and since we sold our home in the US, he didn’t have anywhere to go. His illness is not the diabetes caused from obesity or bad diet. His is genetic. He must take insulin daily. He has trouble keeping a job because of this. He is weak and this causes mental problems in addition to physical. He can’t pay attention and complete tasks now that he’s older. He was better when he was in his 20-40s and worked and traveled. He’s 50 now. He came with us to Mexico and lives here now. He was doing good, teaching English and met a girl before the quarantine. He’ll have to wait until things are back to normal to resume teaching. He and his friend talk by phone. Just when things were settling and I was getting used to retirement in a foreign country, Covid-19 came along! Reading your words about PTSD and how illness has effected you and your son, allows me to get a glimpse of light. Depression has resulted in my losing a lot of weight-about 40 pounds! I wasn’t eating enough and it’s been hard to take showers and normal activities. I’m slowly gaining weight back. That’s enough about me. I also follow you on Twitter but don’t see you often since I have more followers now. Keep writing! I want to share your post if that’s okay.

    • Karen DeBonis on May 14, 2020 at 7:35 PM

      Your comment is a light in my tunnel today- thank you! I’m so glad this resonated with you, and absolutely – share away. Boy- you have so much going on–many changes and concerns, which are weighing heavily on you. I’m sorry you’re stuck in the tunnel. If my math is correct, your son’s had diabetes for 45 years, which means you’ve had it for 45 years, too, right? (My husband also has type 1 diabetes.) That’s a long time to manage such a difficult disease. Y’know what – I think we just created a meaningful moment and I hope that keeps you moving forward. Be well.

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