Young people are becoming more equipped to deal with trauma, according to grief experts. But why?
I knew my life would never be the same after my Dad died during the pandemic – and boy did he know it too.
In March 2020, whilst others were dancing along to Joe Wick’s workouts and organising book clubs over Zoom, I was coming to terms with my Dad receiving a six-month prognosis. A global lockdown seemed trivial compared to the turmoil I was facing and, if anything, it inspired me to craft the enforced time together into a tapestry of togetherness.
I embarked on a mission to respond to my Dad’s illness pragmatically. When faced with the idea of my future life without him, I asked him to write my wedding speech and record his voice on my phone.
We wrote letters to each other and listened to him for hours whilst he played guitar in his cabin. I maxed my camera roll out with photos of him mowing the lawn and we danced the night away to Abba on my 22nd birthday – the final milestone he was here to enjoy.
“Foresight”, he called it. I guess that’s one word for it.
The pandemic symbolised a great deal of introspection, renewal of lifestyle choices, and the strength of relationships for many of us. Paradoxically, it also represented bereavement, grief and loneliness for just as many, if not more.
For me, the pandemic was bittersweet. Despite, what I like to think of as, an extremely pragmatic approach to his six-month prognosis, there was one thing that was impossible to prepare for: what life would actually feel like after my Dad died.
It felt lonely, confusing and isolating at first; and not being able to distract myself with holidays, work or social events compounded feelings of grief and loss. It’s only now, three years on, that I can begin to make sense of the profound shift in mindset, priorities and values I’ve experienced during the pandemic, and how it transformed my life going forward.
What does Post-Traumatic Growth look like?
Up until now, I’ve had an underlying sense that I’m grieving in the ‘wrong’ way. I didn’t understand why I wasn’t crying all the time, or curled up in a ball unable to eat, sleep or work.
However, a quick Google search of my ‘symptoms’ revealed that what I deem as refreshingly new in my life – my thoughts, my beliefs and my values, isn’t abnormal. In fact, it backs up the science-driven research that significant positive change can result from traumatic life events, otherwise known as “Post-Traumatic Growth” (PTG).
After the initial whirlwind of death certificates, “I’m sorry for your loss” peace lilies and Facebook messages from acquaintances I haven’t spoken to in almost a decade, I noticed that the problems I’d endured pre-loss didn’t seem relevant anymore: the ‘heartbreak’ seemed trivial, the girl dramas were petty and my people-pleasing tendencies became painstakingly obvious.
The body image issues that once consumed my thoughts started to fade away, and I healed my relationship with food and exercise (thank god). I began to help others by talking about loss openly through my writing, volunteering and presence online. The pandemic gifted me the time to process my grief at my own pace, in my own way.
Richard G. Tedeschi, author and executive director of The Boulder Crest Foundation, is a pioneer in the field of PTG. Over the past 25 years, as part of the PTG Research Group, Tedeschi has dedicated his career to learning more about the personal transformations that can occur in the aftermath of traumatic life events.
“Post-traumatic growth is something that happens after adversity has had a major effect on people, so much that it challenges the core belief system,” Tedeschi explains in a podcast interview with the American Psychological Association.
“[That is] the basic and fundamental things that people really believe about themselves and their lives.” In 2017, Tedeschi published a PTG workbook for those who strive to come out of the other side of trauma.
After my Dad died, even the most insistent of worries and doubts were overpowered by the core belief that “if I can get through that loss, I can get through anything.” The fragile ice statue of self-deprecating beliefs in my mind shattered, and I gifted myself permission to start anew in my relationship with myself, others and the world around me.
The pandemic and grief work online: “A new breed of grievance“
Despite PTG being around for centuries, it seems the pandemic sparked a trend in people responding to trauma in a proactive way. “We [were] hit by a pandemic that has caused thousands and thousands of deaths, unprecedented unemployment and a global economic downturn,” Tedeschi says in a article published during the pandemic.
With those infected taking priority throughout the pandemic, NHS staff were overstretched and unable to help those grieving. Death rates steadily rose and tragedies were broadcast on our screens daily.
Meanwhile, bereaved people needed support more than ever. It was at this point that online support systems in the grief space, tucked away in a hidden corner of the internet, were pushed to the front line.
The Grief Gang
Amber Jeffrey, 26, experienced tragic loss at the age of 19 years old. After her mum died of a sudden heart attack in 2016, She spent three years pain-stricken with the heartbreak of grief. She was left feeling lost and misunderstood by the world around her.
Having bottled up the spectrum of emotions, and cried all her tears, she simply got ‘fed up’ with her inability to see a way out. “If you lose somebody quite young, you have a lot of time with this grief,” Amber says. “There was a conscious element of feeling like this pain can’t be for nothing, and I couldn’t let her [Jeffrey’s mum] die in vain”.
Disappointed in her quest to find a resource that helped her process her trauma, Jeffrey decided that she was going to try and be that reassuring voice for others.
In 2019, Amber launched The Grief Gang – a podcast aiming to normalise and break down the taboo around grief. Here, she hosts weekly hour-long episodes, either solo or with a guest speaker, covering a range of thought-provoking and emotive topics – from how to manage friendships and navigating milestones, all the way to how grief might be affecting your sex life! “It was a mixture of wanting to help others and also helping myself”, she explains.
At first, Amber’s close family and friends were both confused and concerned when she started talking about her grief publicly online. After all, she was in such a dark place just moments ago herself. Her shift in values and priorities didn’t make sense to those around her.
“I knew that I needed to speak to other people who understood me,” she affirms. “I’m a huge advocate for doing whatever it takes to support yourself, as long as what you’re doing doesn’t hurt yourself or others.” She speaks to the belief that there is no ‘right’ way to grieve, no matter how nonsensical it seems to others.
Over the last four years, catalysed by the pandemic, The Grief Gang has grown from a couple of followers to 43,800 on Instagram. With bereavement services on the back-burner, Jeffrey was thrown in the deep end whilst bereaved listeners inhaled her content. Paired with the desire to feel from her own trauma, The Grief Gang provided reflected an oasis of positivity, growth and healing for those going through magnified feelings of uncertainty, loss and grief.
Grief goggles…the shitty alternative to rose tinted glasses… 👓💩 Catch up on this weeks episode, Grief and Friendships part 2 where I’m picking at old wounds and probably serving unhelpful advice…😂 Tune in wherever you get your podcast fix or follow the link in my bio for your convenience. Thank you to ALL who listen! It really means so much💜 #grief #griefpodcast #griefandloss #griefgang
♬ original sound – The Grief Gang
We were globally confronted with the fragility of life, on a daily basis. Prior to the pandemic, Amber hadn’t come across such a collective shift in talking about loss and processing feelings of grief. The silver lining was bittersweet, but profound.
More so, the ‘normal’ ways to memorialise a death were stripped away from us. We were left unable ritualise the end of life with physical get togethers, or even attend funerals in person. This left bereaved people fully in the driving seat of their grief; and that’s a scary place to be.
Amber noticed that, compared to her grief work prior to the pandemic, the global catastrophe inspired a “new breed of grievance”: a more open, vulnerable and proactive way to process one’s grief in a way that fuels them to live a better life. “Post-traumatic growth is a kind of bug that’s really rife at the moment”, she continues.
A generation of growth: turning pain into purpose
A quick search on social media will reveal that young people, especially, have become more comfortable with expressing their grief online. This is evident on TikTok, with the hashtag ‘posttraumaticgrowth’ racking up 31.2 million views.
For me, sharing my story online throughout the pandemic – highlight reels of my dad, poems I’d written and updates of our family’s situation – helped me process my grief, as well as not distance myself from others. Whilst some felt awkward interacting with the rawness and vulnerability of my content, the majority were uplifted by the act of breaking conventions as to what to post online.
In the months after my Dad died, I was unable to work or socialise due to national restrictions. During this time I found solace in writing a guided grief journal to help others through their journeys with grief – inspired by the insights I gained during this time and the wisdom my Dad had shared with me.
Psychotherapist, Laura Greenwood, has personal, as well as professional, experience of PTG. Having spent decades avoiding the pain of losing both her parents at the age of 18, she’s finally reached a point where she hasn’t only processed her grief, but where she is also channelling her pain into purpose to live a better life.
“I think, historically, my generation weren’t taught how to process emotions in general,” she tells me over Zoom. “I was coping with it on the outside but, in reality, I was just masking the grief and my feelings”.
Years later, Laura has learned how important it is to feel all of your feelings without getting lost in them. “Nowadays there is more information about the importance of feeling your feelings,” she explains. “Just having a common language makes young people more equipped to move through trauma and learn from those experiences.”
During the pandemic, young people were faced with an upheaval of losses – from graduation ceremonies to social events to first-job opportunities. But whilst trauma can absolutely lead to a decline in mental health in young people, it’s just as likely for trauma to catalyse positive transformation among youngsters, who are straddling between childhood and adulthood.
Of course, the ability to grow from trauma comes down to an individual’s personality, too. Those primed for post-traumatic growth may embody a Type A personality – fuelled by high achievement, productivity and self-control.
“They have to be interested in their own growth and personal development, and believe they can improve their life,” Dr. Becky Spelman, CEO of The Therapy Clinic told me.
“The kinds of people who look at things in such a positive light are able to bounce back from trauma in a stronger, faster and incredibly resilient way.” The pandemic forced Type A personalities, much like myself, to slow down, recharge and channel my creative energy into something positive.
PTG isn’t black and white
Tedeschi and his team at Boulder Crest have identified five measurable areas of PTG: a greater sense of personal strength, the exploration of new possibilities, improved relationships, an enhanced appreciation for life and spiritual growth.
One of Richard’s PhD students, and specialist in the science of PTG, explains the non-linear direction of this model: “It’s very possible to be in different phases at different times,” Taryn Greene tells me. “One may identify with one more than another, or all of these areas at one point, and others at a different point in their life.”
In any and all of these areas, PTG can feel like a shattering and rebuilding of core beliefs, Greene explains. “Those cognitive beliefs that you hold in your preconscious mind that aren’t even necessarily known to you, but define how you relate to the world.” For example, the core belief that my Dad would be at my wedding.
Over the course of the pandemic, I began to accept my new circumstances and piece together a new reality of what my future would look like. In an everyday circumstance, caught up in the busyness of life, I wouldn’t have found the time to process my grief the way I did. Limitedness itself was a blessing in disguise.
The team have also found that those affected by trauma are more likely to experience PTG if they find work that benefits others who’ve endured a similar trauma. The pandemic served as a breeding ground for people to channel their pain into a sense of purpose through podcasts, TikToks and Instagram channels to support others going through similar experiences.
Amber notes how everybody experiences PTG differently; for some it’s short-term and for others it changes their whole career path and direction in life. “People may start a project for a season of their life, which serves them in the chapter they’re in,” she explains. “In the digital age, projects can grow at an exponential rate, which can be overwhelming if you started something that was just meant to be for you.”
Pain and growth aren’t mutually exclusive
She also offers live coaching through the Life After Loss Academy, guiding clients through a five-step integrative method to create a rich, meaningful and joyful relationship with grief. In her work she reminds readers and clients of the narrative we often associate with growth.
Whilst we tend to associate growth with visible milestones, like buying a house or earning a certain amount of money. In this way, many of us during the pandemic would reflect back and see those years behind closed doors as a “waste” of time.
However, growth is just as likely to manifest through valuable insights or subtle shifts in mindset. “Growth simply means you’re acquiring information”, Shelby points out.
For me, this meant healing from my grief in a gentle, compassionate and curious way through journaling, voice noting my friends and expressing myself with words. Whether the information you’ve gained is positive or negative, comforting or painful, growth is an inevitable byproduct of being alive; the symptoms aren’t mutually exclusive.
Shelby describes life in our teens and early twenties as ‘The Launchpad Years’. If something happened to disrupt the launch, it’s difficult for the rocket (e.g the individual) to reset and try again.
If someone told me that at the age of 22 I’d not only lose my Dad, but be confined to the four walls of my own home for as long as the government decides, PTG would’ve been the last thing I would have expected to experience. Despite being in my early twenties, I didn’t feel like a ‘proper adult’ yet. My ‘launchpad’ was very much in the trial-and-error phase.
However, when faced with extreme adversity, something bigger than me took over. It felt like strength that’d be stored for emergencies somewhere deep down inside of my Being. I certainly didn’t want to repress and ignore the devastating circumstance I was planted in, but I also didn’t want to fall victim to it.
The catastrophe that the rest of the world was preoccupied with allowed me to experiment with the way I responded to trauma, with the option to go back to ‘normal’ after the pandemic passed. It felt like I had nothing to lose by trying to channel the grief into something positive.
As Amber so rightly pointed out, whether it’s for a season or an entire career, everybody is entitled to grieve in the way that serves them at any given time.
Not everybody is as fortunate to (ironically) have the freedom to grieve as they choose, I realise now. After her Mum died, Shelby was overtly encouraged by family to carry on with her studies to pursue her dream of becoming a CEO in the corporate world of advertising.
Despite her career-driven nature, she couldn’t think of anything worse than returning to ‘normal’ life as a student in their twenties. “It was the last thing I wanted to do,” Shelby tells me. “I went back to a whole pool of students in their twenties partying and learning new things.”
She describes feeling like she was on a planet, isolated, floating in the middle of space. She made it to her college graduation then flew home to Chicago, where she stumbled between jobs, relationships and a sense of belonging. Shelby visualises this period as an “involuntary scavenger hunt”; forced to find the pieces of herself that she never wanted to find in the first place.
Desperate to find some form of solstice in her pain and loneliness, Shelby started inhaling grief book after grief book. “I was learning all of these methods and modalities and vocabulary about how to wrap language around and process what I’d experienced,” she explains.
Whilst her peer’s idea of helping was to hand her a drink, Shelby took the initiative to piece together a roadmap of tools and techniques that’d guide her through her experience with coming to terms with loss. Years later, she became a beacon of hope for the bereaved throughout the pandemic, who were unsure as to what ‘normal’ was going to look like in the future.
As a member of the grief space myself, I’ve often been cautious of the grey area between PTG and Toxic Positivity – the idea that people should reject difficult emotions and maintain a positive mindset, no matter what.
Laura emphasises how important it is to become clear of the difference between swallowing up your feelings, and processing them at a pace that serves you. “There’s a common misconception that when you process a loss, you just get over it and move on,” she warns. “You don’t. You just learn to grow around that grief”.
Collectively, we’re becoming more investigative of our feelings. The pandemic encouraged us to open ourselves up to new insights, perspectives and ways to process trauma more proactively. However, this doesn’t mean everybody who experienced loss during the pandemic transformed their lives for the better.
Grief is a passage, not a place to remain #posttraumaticgrowth #grief #griefjourney #griefandloss #grieftok #grieve #therapistadvice #healing #resilience
♬ original sound – Ashley Elizabeth
PTG expert talking about grief on TikTok
Shelby stresses that just because her life has transformed post-loss, she wholeheartedly doesn’t believe the trauma was ‘worth it’. “I’m choosing to see her [mother’s] death as something that’s the hardest thing that ever happened to me, as well as the thing that’s propelled me to live the life I’m living now”. Her life after the loss of her Mum isn’t better, it’s just different.
“I think there are a lot of people for whom a loss of any kind – a death, divorce, diagnosis, major geographic move or financial hardship – really does make life worse”, Shelby continues.
Just because we had infinite time and space to experience growth during the pandemic, that doesn’t mean everybody did – or should feel like they should’ve.
That being said, it’s important to reflect on what growth means to us. By simply living through everyday, we’re involuntarily growing out of redundant thought patterns, habits and tendencies – whether we like it or not.
The Power of Gratitude, Time and Acceptance
Economist and author, Dr. Randall Bell, wrote Post-Traumatic Thriving as a passion project to get the research about PTG out there. It was published just after the peak of the pandemic, in 2021 – in response to the collective’s desire to not only heal, but thrive as a consequence of widespread trauma.
Considered the world’s top authority in the field, he shares the stories of 12 people who’ve experienced hideous traumas and have not only survived, but are doing amazing things with their life after their various traumatic experiences.
The last chapter of the book explores the relationship between PTG and gratitude. When losing a loved one, Bell talks about how those experiencing PTG aren’t necessarily grateful for their loss, but grateful for the years they spent together. They may live their life in honour of their loved one by doing things they think they’d be proud of.
“We look for things to be grateful for in spite of the trauma, not necessarily because of it”, Bell says. “Gratitude at the appropriate point is a really healthy emotion”. I feel wholeheartedly grateful for the memories I shared with my Dad during the pandemic, and the time I had to heal after he died.
For me, the gut-wrenching feeling comes when I imagine myself walking down the aisle without my Dad. It hurts, and always will.. Even so, I allow these feelings to surface, feel them, and accept the cards I’ve been dealt as best I can in any given moment.
Clearly, PTG isn’t as plain-sailing as it looks; and it’s not as simple as intentionally creating a better life for yourself through positive thinking or going to therapy. There’s no one-size-fits-all, or ‘right’ way to get there. However, as we’ve uncovered, there are a number of factors that may explain why many like myself have facilitated growth after loss.
Fortunately, I’ve been exposed to books, podcasts and online resources that have guided me through the grieving process, and inspired me to help others. The timeliness of the pandemic gave me no choice but to confront my trauma head on and be present with my feelings.
In addition, I’m a sucker for personal development and was determined not to be a victim of my loss. Deep down, I knew I had the strength to get through it.
Ultimately, a combination of these factors have allowed me to enhance my existing relationship with spirituality, personal growth and gratitude. Had the pandemic not happened, who knows when I would’ve dedicated so much time to processing my grief, and working through it with my inner circle.
In spite of extreme tragedy, the pandemic opened up the grief space. It relied on the work of dedicated healers – like Amber and Shelby – of whom unconditionally held space for grievers like myself.
After my Dad died, my family and I opened his will. In it were five sealed envelopes, labelled with the names of his wife and four children. On mine, read a note: “A speech to be read at Lara’s wedding”.
In that tatty, unopened envelope, my Dad’s thoughts, feelings and (I can assume) ridiculous sense-of-humour still lives on. In the most difficult of moments, I remember that envelope exists.
Hearing those words will never make up for the fact that my Dad won’t walk me down the aisle or meet his grandchildren. Nothing will. However, to me, the envelope symbolises time and acceptance of everything that those years were.
The suddenness of my Dad’s prognosis, accompanied by an abundance of togetherness and love. The catastrophe that was the pandemic, paired with the healing ground it provided me to grow.
The envelope inspires me to keep on growing – not only for me, or even for him, but for that 22-year old version of myself who thought life without her Dad, in times of heightened panic and uncertainty, would be virtually impossible.
From Prognosis to Peace: Navigating Grief through Gratitude, Discovery and Healing’ was published in March 2021 [available to buy on Amazon, £8.00].
Featured image by Jill Wellington via Pexels CC.