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

The light of post-traumatic growth may await us at the end of the tunnel.

Dear friend,

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—PTG— is what happens when a person grows from trauma.

When Matt told me, 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, like 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. Michael 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 was 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 and 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 I’d 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—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.

But…

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 X out 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 PTG is paved in meaningful moments.

In the podcast, grief expert David Kessler, who lost his teenage son unexpectedly, says the path to PTG (at around 13:50 in the podcast) 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.

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.)

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Stages of Grief during COVID-19.

Image by Carrie Z from Pixabay.

Dear friend,

Are you still struggling? Me too.

So much loss and pain and fear within myself and among humanity. I’d been trying to wrap my brain around what I could say about it but it all seemed like more blah, blah, blah, just like the blah, blah, blah that fills the airwaves and my inbox every day.

Then my son Matt sent me a link to a podcast he listens to regularly: The Art of Manliness. In this particular episode, the host, Brett McKay, interviewed David Kessler, a grief expert and collaborator of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross—-creator of the five stages of grief.

You may be familiar with the stages, which ebb and flow, not in any sequential or linear order: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance.

In this interview, Kessler said what we’re experiencing during this pandemic is grief. All of us, except those rare individuals (if they exist) who are somehow immune physically, socially, and emotionally to what’s happening to our world, are experiencing grief.

We’re experiencing pandemic grief.

It certainly feels that way to me.

Kessler goes on to assert that we’re the first generation to have “feelings on feelings.” In other words, “I feel X about this situation. And I feel Y about my X.”

No wonder this is so difficult!

Kessler doesn’t name the second level of feelings, but in many cases, as it is for me, that feeling is guilt: since I have it so much better than others, I feel guilty about and un-entitled to my negative emotions.

I believe it’s a form of survivor guilt. I recognize it from Matt’s rumble with a brain tumor when he was eleven, and it persists for me today. He was, and is, so much better off than many, many other brain tumor survivors. How can I possibly grieve for what was lost when I have so much to celebrate? Deep in the thicket of bringing my memoir into existence, I fight that war often.

And I find myself fighting with my first and second generation feelings about COVID-19:

  • I lost my disability income last September and my appeal was recently was denied. I’m not able to produce any sustainable earnings. But how can I feel sad when my husband is still employed and we’ll never lack for food and shelter?
  • I’m afraid of getting infected, but I rarely have to leave my house. How can I worry when so many others put their lives on the line every day?
  • I feel hopeless about the future of the book industry, and worried that I’ll never get an agent for my memoir. But how shallow can I be to even think about a mere book when people are dying?
  • I’m distraught over my good friend who is extremely ill with COVID-19. But how can my feelings even compare to what his family is going through?

You get my drift.

Kessler’s advice is to “Stay in your first generation feelings,” allow yourself to feel without judgment. If you do this, he says, the feelings will pass through you in a few minutes.

I’m not sure that “passing through” happens so easily, but I’m going to try that this week.

I’m going to feel whatever I feel. I’m going to sit with all of my feelings and acknowledge them. I’m going to accept them whether they pass through me or not, and my goal will be to go easy on myself: self-acceptance is key.

I hope naming this collective expereince as grief helps you to go easy on yourself. I hope you can sit with your feelings today, accepting them for what they are. I hope you can grieve in whatever way you need to. And I hope that gives you solace.

Above all, I hope you are safe and well. If not, know that I grieve for you, as does the world.

There was much more in the interview that I’d like to share (including a sixth stage Kessler added) but, because there’s so much we all have to process every day, because of all the blah, blah, blah, I’ll save those thoughts for another week.

What about you? Does this pandemic experience feel like grief?

[If you don’t see the comment box here, click on the title of this post, scroll to the bottom and, Voila! Or, you can click on “Contact” in the menu bar and send me an email. I really do want to hear from you!]

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My vulnerability and why I’m thankful for it.

Dad and I shooting pool. We both won.

Two years ago, I wrote this last-minute Thanksgiving blog about my mom’s recent heart surgery, and my gratitude that she survived.

This year, she’s gone.

I lost my best girlfriend, but I gained a surprising new confidante–my dad.

What’s important is our current connectedness.

When I was sixteen, I never could have imagined sitting on the couch next to my dad with my legs up on his lap, discussing our dreams and fears late into the night. I never could have imagined us side-by-side, holding hands, sharing our deepest feelings. Not that long ago, if you had told me a day would come when no one in my family would understand me as well as my dad, I’d have suspected you of imbibing a little too much holiday sauce.

Yet, it has all come to pass.

When I was younger, my dad and I didn’t relate well to each other. He was an involved father with all six of us kids–changing diapers, building a backyard ice rink, attending games and performances–whatever was needed. He said, “I love you,” regularly, and I knew he meant it. But we just didn’t bond emotionally. I closed my heart to him. The complicated dynamics of our previous relationship don’t really matter–what’s important is our current connectedness.

I’m trying to pinpoint when this new relationship with my dad started, but it was less a point and more an evolution.

Since 2016, when my declining health forced me to leave my job, Dad has never neglected to ask me how I’m feeling. And in spite of the embarrassing symptoms, humiliating symptom-management, and undignified procedures I’d endured, nothing was ever TMI for him. His only concern was for me. The more I shared my distress, the more love he gave.

Vulnerability is an opening for love.

Vulnerability was not a state or characteristic I’d have associated with my dad in the past. He was used to being the family provider, his rock-hard Catholic faith buoying him through stressful times. But as my mother’s health declined, and she became more and more in need of care, my father wondered what the future held, and for how long. His faith wobbled.

Dad felt unmoored, perhaps for the first time. And I felt deep compassion for him, perhaps for the first time. His floundering to find his footing opened a place in my heart that had often been closed to him. It was an opening for love.

We’re often afraid to share our angst, our fears, our unsettledness. It’s risky. Others may think poorly of us or act unkindly. They may use our weakness against us. It’s wise to be cautious.

But sometimes a risk pays off. It did for Dad and me. I’m glad we’re flawed human beings because it is our shared vulnerability that brought us together.

This Thanksgiving, you may have an opening to share your vulnerabilities. Dare you take it? If you do, please let me know!

Regardless, I wish you a day filled with deliciousness of every variety.

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