Did you know "post-traumatic growth" is actually a thing? A friend mentioned the concept to me recently and I made note of it, thinking it was a clever concept invented by us grief sufferers, but when I typed it in a search online, a bunch of very real psychological studies came up.
Mike used to say, repeating an oft-used phrase, that what doesn't kill us makes us stronger. After he died I rebelled against this well-meaning wisdom he often delivered with a smirk, preferring instead, in those early days, to be dead myself, as you might understand, thinking in no way could I ever want to be any stronger, the grief being so dire.
When I look back at these four plus years since his demise, and indeed into the lives of my widowed friends, however, I do see much growth, to various degrees of course. Though I think in some cases widowed people may think they have not become stronger, retreating instead into a solitary life or still feeling the deep wounding sorrow of their losses, the fact that they are still here and still functioning - paying bills, eating meals, coming here to read, for example - even the barest signs of life after their loss is, in my opinion, a factor of growth.
We all recognize as widowed people that we never "get over it." We get through it, the grief becoming a life-long passenger. Learning to survive in this world without our loved ones, however we manage the day to day hardships and burdens, makes us stronger whether we like it, admit it or recognize it at all. We may still cry every day and yet, we survive. We may not want to, in some sense, but we do, and only with the increased strength it takes to live without our loves.
Our lives change immediately following our loss. One moment our spouses are here, the next, they are gone, whether it was a sudden death or long-term illness. None of us asked for that change and yet, there it is. Even that first day we are already forced to exist in a different reality, to exercise a different set of muscles.
The studies note a difference between resilience and thriving, and indeed even in my own experience and that of my widowed friends I see more of one than another, depending on circumstances and personalities.
For myself I think I tend to waver between resilience and thriving on any given day. Some days are just harder than others. Some days provide events to look forward to, and others only the barest of essentials to what one might define as a life at all. Some days I feel gratitude for having had Mike as long as I did, to have known him and lived with him and learned from him. Other days I have a hard time seeing the sense of it at all.
One tool I use often is perspective. This is a term shared and discussed often in my small group of widowed friends. When you are able to look out into the greater world and see the horrible suffering others must face, our predicaments seem a little easier in comparison.
This past week I was out with friends enjoying an evening of music on one end of town when it became time for me to journey to the other end of town where my musician boyfriend was playing. I enjoy that short walk along the ocean, so I set off, and after a block or two came across an old man in a wheelchair, dressed in a hospital gown. I could see immediately that he was in some distress so without thinking I stopped and asked if he needed help.
Yes, he said, it was just too hard to push himself any longer, would I be able to help? He was headed towards the place I had just come from, so I turned around and pushed him, and began to ask how he came to be in this state. His name was Steve, he had been in the hospital, and upon his release was simply dropped off in town in a wheelchair. I was horrified and asked if he was homeless and indeed he was. It left me speechless, but also worried for him. I was thus happy to see when we arrived at the destination that a young man saw us and immediately came over exclaiming how happy he was to see Steve, how worried they had been, and told me he would take over and thanked me.
I gave Steve what little cash I had left in my purse and reluctantly turned around to continue my own journey. But the thought of Steve did not leave me that night, nor has it since.
What griefs and losses has he suffered, and what life has he now? Yet I did sense a resiliency in his own state, a determination to continue on, and even was not alone. Was he thriving? Perhaps not.
But if Steve can motor on, so should I also be able to find the strength to. No matter how hard life seems on any given day, I am better off than he, and so I feel gratitude for what I have alongside the sadness for those so much less fortunate. Perhaps indeed, this post-traumatic growth idea is a thing, for here we are, like it or not, finding a way to survive while also holding the heavy burden of grief.