News from the field

words: Dr Bill Webster, Grief Journey

They say every cloud has a silver lining.

War is never good. Politically, it may sometimes be necessary, but the toll it takes on human lives, especially those in ‘the trenches’ and their families, is never a good thing. Still, sometimes good can come out of bad.

On Remembrance Day, we watch veterans marching with tears in their eyes for their fallen comrades, and for what they themselves endured in the horrors of war. I always think about my grandfather who was wounded in the First World War. When he did talk about it, it was always with great emotion. Even as a young boy, I realised this experience had made a huge, lasting impact on his life.

Yet I also vividly remember him saying: “But I was one of the lucky ones, because I made it home.” Lucky for me too, otherwise I would not be here today to tell his story.

But his survival was at a great cost. The diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) would not become official until well after his death, but we all recognised that he had been affected by what was then known as “shell shock”.

What good can come out of the sacrifice of my grandfather, and the generations decimated through the Second World War, Korea and the wars that have followed every decade since? The effects may not be good, but perhaps some of the outcomes can be seen as a positive.

As we watched the recent Invictus Games in Toronto, spearheaded by concerned veteran and hero HRH Prince Harry, we were inspired by the courage of the 550 wounded service people who travelled from 17 countries. The Latin word “invictus” is translated “unconquered, unsubdued, invincible”.

As Prince Harry said to the competitors: “Right now, you’re on a high, at the summit of a mountain many of you thought was too high to climb. But you have done it. This is the moment, right here, right now, shoulder to shoulder: you are Invictus.”

Or as one competitor said: “We can look at each other and know that every single one of us had to fight some battle to get from where we were to where we are now.”

Those words could be a call to arms for all grieving people whose lives have been touched by tragedy.

In post-traumatic stress, a new concept is emerging called post-traumatic recovery. It shifts the view of trauma as an injury or sickness to regarding the ordeal as “impact”.

That paradigm shift moves the conversation away from “what is wrong with you” to “what has happened to you”, away from the substance of the reaction to the significance of the event.

This new perspective reveals that what develops from within the person is the significant element in their recovery. Growth after any loss is not a direct result of loss itself; it is how the individual struggles as a result of the trauma and loss they have experienced. This lets us return to a less “pathological” model of grief support, to where we state: “Change is never without struggle; but in the struggle we find strength.” That statement was powerfully illustrated in the Invictus Games.

Even more surprisingly, the two major determinates of success in post-traumatic growth were the “individual characteristics of the person” (40%), and “signif icant relationships with others” (30%). Therapy and counselling techniques accounted for only 15%.

Judith Herman’s book Trauma and Recovery stated: “Recovery can take place only within the context of relationships; it cannot occur in isolat ion. In their renewed connections with other people, the survivor recreates the psychological faculties that were damaged or deformed by the traumatic experience.”

“Significant relationships” were ones where people felt “nurtured, liberated or validated”; experienced “genuine acceptance from others”; and where there was a relationship of trust based on an “assured reliance on the character, ability and strength of the helper”.

Grief support and post-traumatic growth are about instilling and maintaining a sense of hope that not only can a person who has experienced trauma survive, but they can also find a goal to strive for, discover reasons to go on and experience positive life changes.

This doesn’t have to be psychological rocket science, or exclusively for professionals. It can happen in enlightened communities among compassionate individuals.

Inspired by Prince Harry, that becomes the new focus of Grief Journey, and we will soon offer you all the opportunity to join us in achieving that goal in your own community.

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