Post-Traumatic Growth

sandy hook memorialLast week, the horrific mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School left many of us (even though we were not directly affected by the tragedy) feeling torn apart and traumatized.

In the aftermath of a traumatic event, many people, despite feeling broken or sad for a period of time, eventually bounce back to “normal.” Others can be scarred, developing mental disorders or even engaging in anti-social behavior.

However, recent research shows that some actually experience positive change, growing to see new life opportunities, developing closer relationships, connecting more deeply with others who suffer, feeling stronger and more self-confident, appreciating life more fully, and/or becoming more spiritually awake. Researchers have termed this phenomenon “Post-Traumatic Growth.” An example of PTG is vowing to hold loved ones closer and to live each day more fully after surviving cancer.

PTG can also be marked by a turn to social activism, a passion for saving the world. Candice Lightner, for instance, founded Mothers Against Drunk Driving after a drunk driver killed her daughter.

Interestingly, PTG is not only something that happens to a lucky few. It is something we can actively achieve. Studies show there are several ways of doing this: Taking time to think, permitting oneself to be pained, confronting one’s feelings with some process of self-disclosure (like writing, talking, or praying), seeking the support of friends and family, and deepening religious faith. Doing these things makes us more optimistic and enables us to feel that life is worth living and that we can make things better.

That is why these very practices are integral to Jewish mourning. In shiva, mourners are freed from mundane distractions to focus on confronting their pain. Community members offer support, comfort, and an open ear. Mourners are given opportunities for self-disclosure and recite Kaddish, a prayer that optimistically reaffirms the orderliness and purposefulness of life.

Mourners renew this process several times a year during Yizkor. Yizkor offers the opportunity to recall the pain of loss, to ruminate over the emotions loss elicits, and, ultimately, to pledge to give to charity in memory of our loved ones. In Yizkor, we declare that the appropriate response to trauma is working to make the world a better, more just place.

Scientific discovery and our tradition remind us that from the depths of pain we can emerge stronger and more committed to making the world a better place.

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