Embracing Posttraumatic Growth: Is Growth Possible After Trauma?

August 17, 2015


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Photo credit: Kara Wahlin

I remember certain days in the NICU. Vividly. The tough days: the days one would never even want to speak of. At the time, I quit all of my social media, I stopped responding to calls, emails and texts, and my world shrunk to pumping, going to the hospital, and making decisions with my husband and my babies’ medical teams about what we would do regarding the health and treatment of our sweet boys. Sleep was fleeting and fraught with anxiety.

Everything– everything changed so quickly. What’s more, so many things fell away. So many of the beliefs, values, and perceptions that I had held prior to the experience of this trauma became suddenly rote. They didn’t matter any more. Everything even remotely symbolic suddenly became obviously so, and obviously unimportant. I often wondered what made it possible for my husband and I to be able to get up each day, make our way to the hospital, make educated decisions about treatment, and say our torturous goodbyes to our babies at the end of the day. At that point I realized there was one thing that hadn’t been shut down in my life: the powerful love I had for my sons.

Peace Lily with a twin bloom. Photo credit: Kara Wahlin

Peace lily with a twin bloom. Photo credit: Kara Wahlin

There was a quote from Pema Chodron that became my mantra at the time; it still makes a resurgence in my life now and then: “Only to the extent that we expose ourselves over and over to annihilation can that which is indestructible be found in us.” It resonated with me. Because in watching my sons struggling in the NICU, I felt that only the indestructible aspects of my belief system could survive.

A week after my son William passed away, his twin Elliott needed to have a PDA ligation. NICU parents know that this is a fairly standard NICU procedure, but that morning I remember as my husband and I waited anxiously outside of Elliott’s room while they operated on his heart, our faces empty and pale, attempting to trust that the procedure would go without a hitch; our silence reverberated with fear and vulnerability. My OB/GYN found us and did a tap dance to try and lift our spirits. When they were able to switch Elliott from a ventilator to the CPAP the next morning my tears flowed with my breath– I had never known a deeper gratitude. And for breathing. Elliott’s breathing had improved.

After the NICU, as we assessed what still stood around us, what hadn’t changed dramatically or crumbled in our lives, I wondered how the experience would affect my story, our story, the story of our family. Did this trauma mean that we would become a sad story? Our lives a tragedy? Would our lives forever be shifted into the shadow of grief?

Photo credit: Kara Wahlin

Photo credit: Kara Wahlin

The answer, unexpectedly, was no.

While the NICU experience undoubtedly took away so much of what we had hoped for; while it shifted and transformed so many expectations; while it did introduce me to the concept of true grief and loss, it also, after time, made me feel incredibly stronger. Letting go of the minor things that, prior to the experience, had actually made big differences in my life had a liberating quality to it. I knew, too, that I would no longer spend time attempting to be symbolically “cool” or passive. I knew that I would strive to find gratitude in my daily life, for things that heretofore I had taken for granted. The NICU experience also brought me an empathy with others, a silent acknowledgment that maybe, just maybe, when someone is behaving cruelly, or driving recklessly, or seems just “off”, maybe they are silently facing some kind of an unspeakable personal tragedy. I knew, even before Elliott’s discharge, that I would be spending a good amount of my future career reaching out to help others who found themselves in similar circumstances. And I knew it would feel meaningful.

Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun are psychologists at the University of North Carolina who have conducted research on the concept of something called posttraumatic growth. Starting with the study of bereaved parents, they discovered that it was common after a traumatic circumstance for individuals to experience positive personal change. “For many people, a crisis seems to serve as a catalyst for acquiring personal and social resources, a more intense appreciation of their self-worth, increased coping skills, and changes in their life philosophies” (Spielman, V. and Taubman-Ben Ari, O., 2009); in other words, individuals who have gone through trauma oftentimes exhibit positive changes or shifts after processing the experience.

The moon and Venus. Photo credit: Kara Wahlin

The moon and Venus. Photo credit: Kara Wahlin

It’s important to remember that the idea of posttraumatic growth doesn’t imply that any individual who has gone through a traumatic experience actually liked it or found it inspiring. It doesn’t mean that individuals who have been through a trauma wouldn’t trade it or any growth that it brought in a second. It also doesn’t mean that families walk out of the NICU with a suddenly sunny outlook on life, or that if you don’t feel that you changed for the positive that something is somehow “wrong” with you. It means that the NICU trauma has the potential to transform families in a powerful way, much by means of highlighting the true values or beliefs of these individuals, if only for what it’s threatened to take away. Trauma can sometimes change our stories in unexpected ways, and make us grateful for things we never would have noticed in our pre-trauma lives.

In their research, Tedeschi and Calhoun found that it was actually more common for individuals who had been through a trauma to experience PTG (posttraumatic growth) than the pathological symptoms of traumatic stress (Tedeschi, R. & Calhoun, L., 2004). What was striking when I started to research PTG, was that many of the studies were centered around NICU parents, for the very fact that it is common for NICU parents, specifically, to experience growth after going through this trauma (Barr, P., 2011; Spielman, V. & Taubman-Ben Ari, O., 2009). It made me curious as to whether there might be others out there who had a similar experience to me: that for them, too, the NICU acted as a crucible, burning away unnecessary anger or resentment, highlighting the things that to them, truly mattered, and making the parenting experience of our incredibly resilient babies an entirely different thing, and tinted with an entirely different hue, than we expected.

Did you experience growth after the NICU? Were there any valuable changes or shifts that you felt in your perception after having gone through it? After the grief, did anything salvageable surface that changed or fortified your ideas about the world around you?


Barr, P. (2011). Posttraumatic Growth in Parents of Infants Hospitalized in a Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. Journal of Loss and Trauma, 16, 117-134.

Chodron, P. (2000). When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times. Shambhala Publications.

Spielman, V. & Taubman-Ben Ari, O. (2009). Parental Self-Efficacy and Stress-Related Growth in the Transition to Parenthood: A Comparison between Parents of Pre- and Full-Term Babies. Health & Social Work, 34(3), 201-212.

Tedeschi, R. & Calhoun, L. (2004). Posttraumatic Growth: Conceptual Foundations and Empirical Evidence. Psychological Inquiry, 15(1), 1-18.