Transforming trauma to growth

Fairly early on we decided that there were only two choices: one was to die, and one was to go forward.  Dying wasn’t really an option for us, so we had no choice but to try to go forward and live in service to our community, profession, friends, and family, and be the best people we could be.

M., forgot his ten-month old son in the car, who died of

I was never really petty, but I got depressed about stupid things. Today my definition of a big deal has changed. I’m more grateful for what I have. I have an image of moving ahead. Pain is part of life. I know how to live with it, not avoid it. And I’m more motivated to do good, to make that my life.

J., accidentally killed her boyfriend in a car crash

At the time of the accident I was in a really dark place. Without the accident I’d still be there. I didn’t just crawl out of the accident. I crawled out of the dark place in my life.

Sandy, accidentally killed a bicyclist in a car crash

For years, therapists have focused on the negative effects of trauma and particularly on post-traumatic stress disorder. But trauma can also motivate personal growth. CADIs will always regret causing harm to another, but many emerge from the emotional maelstrom and self-appraisal process with new resolve. As they take steps to help themselves or others, they transform post-traumatic stress to post-traumatic growth. Many became more empathic. Some extricate themselves from unhappy situations at home or work. Some stop drinking or using drugs. Others place a new premium on service, creativity, or parenting.

Tedeschi, Park, and Calhoun (1998) list various “growth outcomes” of trauma:

  • Self reliance — a recognition of our strength and ability to endure great adversity
  • Vulnerability — a recognition that life is fragile, which can bring a new appreciation for our lives and relationships
  • Self-disclosure and emotional expressiveness — although someCADI’s keep their accidents a secret and hide their feelings, if you do have the opportunity to obtain social support from a friend, family member, or counselor, the long-term results can include greater intimacy, openness, and trust.
  • Compassion and giving to others — more empathy for others in difficult circumstances, less judgemental attitudes, and more willingness and ability to help/support others
  • Appreciation for life — a renewed appreciation for what we have (even as we mourn what we’ve lost) and determination to live according to the priorities that matter
  • Spiritual development and the meaning of life — CADI’s may deepen their religious or spiritual beliefs and practices as they struggle with questions of responsibility, control, meaning, and distress.
  • Wisdom — CADI’s emerge from great trauma with some important insights about life, death, control, responsibility, judgement, and more.   
Post-traumatic growth brings a measure of self-acceptance that has long been missing from the lives of those who have accidentally killed or injured other people. Although we can never fully compensate for killing or injuring another person, we only increase the scope of tragedy when CADIs become additional accident “victims.”

It is easy to confuse growth with self-sacrifice. Filled with guilt, some CADIs deny their own needs or feelings. Selfless giving can be a positive outgrowth of causing an accident, but it can also be a way of punishing oneself. It is important to know the difference. The goal of post-traumatic growth is not to suppress the expression of one’s own dreams but rather to channel them in a positive direction.

This website is one way I am attempting to create something positive from tragedy. What can you do? Write to me.

The Links and Good Books sections of this website have additional information about post-traumatic growth.

Reference: Richard G. Tedeschi, Crystal L. Park, and Lawrence G. Calhoun (1998). “Posttraumatic Growth: Conceptual Issues.” In Tedeschi, Park, and Calhoun (eds.) Posttraumatic Growth: Positive Changes in the Aftermath of Crisis. New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

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