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Can Grief Be an Impetus to Personal Growth?

New research stresses the ways that grief can be transformative

When we are in midst of grief, the very idea that we can grow through this experience seems so objectionable. After all, who would want to grow at such a cost? It almost seems like someone is insensitively telling us to look for the silver lining.

Yet the truth is we can grow. We have no choice about loss. We have no choice about the grief that ensues. However we do have one choice within our grief. Grief will change us. Things will never be the same. We will never be the same. The choice we have is not whether we will change—but how we change. We can choose to grow up or grow down.

Two psychologists—Richard Tedeschi and Larry Calhoun—have written about what they call “post-traumatic growth.” They recognize that loss challenges our assumptions about the world. If we are to reconstruct our world—to survive—we need to re-examine both how we look at the world and how we function within that new world. From that reassessment comes growth.

This growth can be experienced in a number of ways. We can emerge with a greater appreciation of life. Realizing how fleeting life can be, we can have a increased appreciation for the relationships we have. Our priorities may change. We realize that no one dying ever regretted the fact that they should have spent more time at work or on the Internet.

Our spirituality may deepen as we struggle with our faith. We may emerge with a spirituality more complex than we once had. We may recognize that we stronger than we thought—after all, we survived this loss. We may find we have new skills—talents that had to be honed as we struggle to survive in a new reality.

We begin by acknowledging that we need to change—to grow—as we cope with this loss. It sometimes helps to reflect on these changes—to recognize and even appreciate the growths we have experienced. I begin each new grief group by asking individuals how they have changed since we last met.

We may need to empower ourselves. Our very language can help here. We can reflect that we have choices even as we cope with loss. We can look at our issues as challenges we have to surmount rather than problems that perplex us.

We can build on our strengths. Reflect on our previous losses and prior life crises. What helped us get through those crises? Whatever helped us before, we now use. Sometimes though, we have to reframe those strengths. For example, Karen, a surviving spouse, told me that her husband’s support helped her deal with the loss of her parent’s but now he had died. As we spoke she recognized the value of support as a way that she coped with loss. Since she could not find it from her husband, she could receive it within a support group.

Growth may be a poor compensation for loss—yet it is the only way we could survive.

More from Kenneth J. Doka Ph.D.
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