In my work with the wives of wounded warriors, I've seen post-traumatic stress (PTS) in the warriors themselves as well as in their family members. According to Mental Health America, PTS can affect anyone who has experienced or witnessed a traumatic event such as sexual or physical abuse, a natural disaster, or war. Anyone who was present at the recent terrorist attacks in Brussels - as well as first responders and victims' family members - is likely to feel aftershocks of that stunning trauma long after the fact. They may be haunted by nightmares that recall the events at the Zaventem airport, or experience flashbacks of the horrific scenes that played out there after the suicide bombers detonated their explosives.
And this is perfectly natural. PTS develops in survivors of a variety of catastrophes, many of whom had no previous significant mental health problems. For example, a study by the US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health showed that PTS is common among rescue workers, firefighters, health care teams, and police officers. The symptoms have also been noted in prisoners of war, Holocaust survivors, and people who witnessed or were first responders to the attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001.
But, amazingly, the aftermath of a traumatic event can sometimes spur incredibly positive changes. In the midst of stress and sorrow, fear and grief, many people discover inner strengths that had previously been hidden.
You've probably heard of the five stages of grief as postulated by the Kübler-Ross model, but how about the five stages of grief growth? It wasn't until I'd spent some time working with the spouses of wounded warriors that I heard these stages re-cast. These amazing women taught me how denial, anger, depression, bargaining, and acceptance can all contribute to the healing process, and all help us grow beyond our pain. After all, loss is part of life, and each stage can be transformative in a positive way.
Let's look at each one in detail:
Stage 1 -- Denial
When faced with true trauma, we often reject its existence to protect our minds from shock. This is a mental coping technique that serves as the first emotional line of defense.
Denial is actually there to cushion the blow of a new reality. It allows us to navigate through the fog so we can make it through the day, and is an important part of moving toward healing and growth. Denial will burn itself out when the time is right.
Stage 2 -- Anger
After the numbness of denial wears off, we are faced with our harsh new reality and the shock hits us full-force. If we focus on the unfairness of our situation, rage floods our system. Based on the news coverage, it seems like many of the victims of the Brussels attack are steeped in anger right now.
We are often told that anger is pointless, but in reality it is an important part of processing pain. Feeling it is a natural, normal part of living through a life-altering trauma. Anger can even help create motivation to ask more questions, change unfair situations, and advocate for yourself and your loved ones.
Stage 3 -- Bargaining
When anger begins to recede, bargaining takes over. In this stage, striking internal deals with ourselves, with God, with fate, gives us a sense of control within an uncontrollable situation.
People can become stuck in the bargaining phase for too long, and may need to force themselves to talk about the deals they are trying to strike inside their own minds. When explored out loud with others, bargaining helps the bargainers understand what they can and cannot change in their new situation.
Stage 4 -- Depression
Once we acknowledge that bargaining is in vain, a flood of sadness washes over us. We often withdraw from life and friends, unable to perform even simple tasks without feeling exhausted.
This stage can feel endless and exhausting, but without it we cannot flush sadness out of our systems. Depression allows the feelings of sorrow and hopelessness for our changed lives to be fully expressed, and without it we cannot continue to move forward.
Stage 5 -- Acceptance
When depression lifts, grievers often find themselves in a land of acceptance. Acceptance is far from being "okay" or "fine" with a loss. Instead it is an acknowledgement of the truth of the situation, an adjustment to the "new" new.
With acceptance comes the motivation to do the best we can with what we've got. Acceptance means making peace with what is, but it also leaves room for contemplating ways to making the situation even better.
Our hearts go out to the victims of the Brussels bombing. And although this trauma is still so fresh, many of them may be moving through these stages of grief growth already. Which means they'll emerge wiser, kinder, and more powerful than ever before.