Grief and trauma can bring learning and growth

Despite the common strong association between grief and death, grief is a reaction to a significant loss, and not just to a death. This means that we can have a grief reaction to any major change in our life, even positive ones. For example, someone excited about moving to a new job or promotion may still grieve for aspects of their old job. Gains will always also be accompanied by losses of some sort.

Grief reactions are perfectly normal responses to loss and change. They are part of our way of adapting to new circumstances. The impact can range from minor and insignificant to devastatingly major. When our reaction is at this latter end of the spectrum, we will often talk of a trauma – a psychological or spiritual wound, parallel with the physical wounds or traumas the medical profession deals with. A traumatic loss is therefore one that harms us in some way, unlike the type of grief that, although painful, exhausting and frightening, is actually a positive process of healing.

Non-traumatic losses will generally produce levels of grief that can be handled with everyday support and with time, although some levels of grief may need some form of professional help at times. However, with a traumatic loss, the impact can be so great that the disruption it brings to our lives can be of major proportions and require intensive help and support.

But, despite these problems and challenges, there is also a positive side to this. That is because grief in general and traumatic loss in particular can be sources of personal learning and growth. These highly distressing experiences can be valuable lessons from which we can learn a lot. They can also make us more resilient and better prepared for any future such experiences.

Over the years I have come across many people who have suffered greatly as a result of a loss or trauma, but who have none the less been able to grow personally in one or more ways as a result of it. Common themes include people becoming more appreciative of the positives in their life; feeling more confident about dealing with adversity in future; and having a greater sense of self-awareness and self-understanding – all things that can be of significant benefit in a number of ways

It may seem strange to think that such difficult and debilitating circumstances can also have a positive side, but that is the reality. Of course, not every loss or trauma will produce such growth, but it is always a possibility – the potential is always there. There is no simple or straightforward formula way for realising that potential, but, if we are aware of – and tuned into – that potential, there is a much greater chance of making the best of the positives.

This is not to say that the positives will outweigh the negatives or even make the negatives easier to bear, but it would be sad, in a time already characterized by great sadness, for certain positives to be missed out on. As with all matters relating to loss and grief, such situations need to be handled carefully and sensitively, but the positive potential is certainly there to be realised when the time is right.  And timing is important, as these things cannot be rushed.


So, the important lesson to be learned from this is that grief and trauma will continue to be extremely painful and challenging, but they will also offer opportunities for personal growth if we are sufficiently aware of this and sufficiently sensitive to capitalise on those opportunities – and, again, I emphasise: when the time is right.

Look back, face forward

‘Learn from the past’ is an oft-quoted piece of wisdom. ‘Don’t look back, focus on the future’ is another one, despite the fact that the latter totally contradicts the former. So, where does that leave us? Well, as is often the case with slogan-type advice, they both oversimplify a complex situation.

Time is something we generally take for granted as a common sense issue. However, philosophers have long debated the nature of time. For example, in a sense, there is no past or future, there is just the present moment. The past has gone and the future isn’t here yet. You could even argue that the future won’t come, because every day we wake up it is the present moment again and the future is still out of reach. However, this does not mean that past and future are not real.

The past lives on in our memory (the subjective element) and in our surroundings – physical and institutional: buildings, organizations and so on (the objective element). Its influence continues to affect us in a number of ways. There are also many ways in which we can learn from what has happened in the past and what continues to happen because of that past.

The future also exists, not as something that we will ever reach (now will always be now, the present), but as a set of hopes, aspirations and fears that will be shaping our present. Every time we do something, we normally do it for a reason, to achieve something, to make something happen or to prevent something happening. In this sense, the present is constantly being shaped by the future.

So, in reality, the present moment is all that we have as time, but that does not mean that there is no past or future, that they are not real – they exist as powerful influences on our lives, powerfully shaping our experience, our thoughts, feelings and actions. To put it in slightly poetic terms, today is tomorrow becoming yesterday. In this regard, there is much we can learn. Yes, we can learn from the past, as is well recognized, but we can also learn form the future, in the sense that, by being clear about where we are trying to get to, what we are doing with our lives, we can better understand what we are doing now and what we need to do – and that will not only put us in a stronger position for creating the future we want, but also enrich our lives now.

For a long time it was believed that, when we experience a major loss, we need to put that behind us and ‘move on’, we need to ‘let go’ so that we can grieve properly. However, it is now recognized that this is not helpful. Trying to artificially disconnect from the past is not likely to feel real, and is therefore not likely to help. The much more helpful idea of ‘continuing bonds’ means that we can continue our relationship with the person we have lost, but recognize that the relationship will now take a different form. The past is still meaningful for us, but we move forward towards the future understanding what has changed, understanding that the present is now different, and so will the future be.

So, the past is something we can learn and benefit from, and in many ways it remains with us. But, we must also look to the future, because that too is constantly guiding our choices, influencing our feelings and shaping our thoughts. The past and the future are not alternatives to the present; they are very much part and parcel of the present, and we will be much worse off if we lose sight of that.