I sit on the deck of our North Carolina beach house. The breeze moves across the Intracoastal waterway, carrying the smell of the ocean up the stairs and through my hair. I think about my Granddaddy.
His favorite place was the beach. He would spend hours on the end of a pier, pole in hand, content to be catching fish or — if they weren’t biting — happy just to be near the water. In the eight years since his death, I have yet to smell the ocean without thinking of him.
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I notice two yellow butterflies dancing across the yard. “There’s Granddaddy,” my mother says from her chair on the deck. During her first trip to the beach after his death she saw something unusual — hundreds of yellow butterflies — which she interpreted as a sign from him.
Now, every time I see a butterfly, I think of him, wondering if he recognizes me as he flutters his wings. If not here as a butterfly, where is he? The dragon of existential anguish1 breathes fire onto my face.
He laughs at me as I ask myself these questions. Since his death, my previously held assumptions about the world have been shattered2. My life, which once seemed fair and good, is no longer so.
I look back at the article I’m reading on posttraumatic growth, the idea that some trauma survivors experience positive changes in their lives such as a greater appreciation of life, feeling stronger as a person, finding new possibilities in life, changing the way they relate to others, and spiritual growth3. My grandfather’s death is my trauma. I try to be positive. I search for growth within my narrative of his illness and death.
The breeze picks up as the sun begins to set. It whips across the deck and ruffles my papers. I think about posttraumatic growth…I have a greater appreciation of life because I am still here.
I marvel at the water, the breeze, the butterflies. Surely these things are not here by chance. I marvel at my dog. How odd that his name is Chance…
I am a stronger person. Perhaps I am biased, but I believe there exists no torture as great as losing a loved one and struggling with life’s big questions. As I wrestle with such ambiguity, I realize — I can deal with anything.
New possibilities exist in my life. I try to recycle anything and everything. I try to save homeless animals. I give change to homeless humans.
These are small details in the grand scheme of things, but I try to make the world better in my own way because I have realized: life IS short.
I have also grown in the way I relate to others. Now I know what others go through when they lose a loved one.
Extremely stressful life events are likely to lead to distress. Traumatic events can cause us to feel sad, frightened, angry, anxious and a whole host of other emotions. Maybe, somewhere hidden beneath the hurt, we can find ways in which we are transformed: we have grown.
September is National Recovery Month and Suicide Prevention Awareness. As we focus on these extremely important issues in mental health, we need to continue to move toward growth and becoming stronger in the face of adversity.
For more information about posttraumatic growth (PTG), check out Tedeschi, Park, and Calhoun’s helpful book: Posttraumatic growth: Positive changes in the aftermath of crisis (1998). Please also see web links below that address recovery, inner strength, resilience and suicide prevention
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