by Sheri McGregor, M.A.
After a loved one’s suicide, the last thing on most people’s minds is personal growth. But living through the shock, anger, sadness, guilt, or other feelings can actually make you a better, stronger person. That’s especially true if you share your feelings. Social scientists describe the growth that comes from adversity as stress-related growth and/or post-traumatic growth. And according to a recent study on the subject of such personal growth, survivors who talk about the suicide of a loved one and its impact on them fare better.
Stress-related personal growth refers to positive changes in a survivor’s personal strength and relationships, a shift in priorities and the identification of new possibilities, an individual’s appreciation of life, and spiritual growth. And it’s true that people who go through adversity and successfully emerge on the other side of the pain often possess a profound sense of gratitude and increased tolerance. They derive greater meaning and appreciation in their lives. Survivors of suicide aren’t usually reflecting on their own growth while in the throes of grief, but it is wise to deal with the trauma in ways that will benefit you in the long term. Before we get to that, let’s briefly explore the areas social scientists often refer to when it comes to stress-related personal growth.
Personal strength: Seeing yourself as stronger and more capable because you’ve overcome past stressful events. Knowing you have survived one thing, you believe you can survive another. Even a seemingly small triumph—like healing from an injury or learning how to return restaurant food that was cooked improperly—can build confidence. In times of despair, it helps to keep in mind that you have gone through prior troubles. Ask yourself: What have I previously gone through or succeeded against, from which I can draw personal strength? Reflect on what helped you, as well as what didn’t. Use what you learned to help you now, after a loved one’s suicide.
Shift in priorities: Finding joy and value in everyday life. In my recent book, Done With The Crying: Help and Healing for Mothers of Estranged Adult Children, I write, “The best things in life may be free, but not unless we take notice and appreciate them.” That’s because in a recent study, people who took notice and appreciated positive experiences were happier and felt more satisfied. Even the tiniest joys—like the buttery taste of cinnamon toast or the warmth of sunlight after a storm—can be recalled and savored. What positive sensation or experience, no matter how small, can you notice, remember, and savor today? Remind yourself to take notice of those things—they can calm your mind and raise your spirits in times of grief.
Improvement in relating to others: People who come through stressful events often benefit from deeper communication levels and recognize the value of their relationships. A need for support may draw people closer. In turn, people who have faced crises may better empathize with others, be quicker to forgive imperfections, and also recognize the value of a network of care. One woman whose family friend committed suicide said, “The people close to me became suddenly more important. They were the only ones who understood.” Another survivor said that he made sure he told his wife he loved her every day. “I wanted her to know,” he said. “Prior to my mother’s death, I was more the ‘I married you, didn’t I?’ type.”
Appreciating life: After a long winter stretch, it feels good to see the sunlight and feel its warmth. It’s similar when we undergo emotional trauma. Some maintain that we actually need difficulties to appreciate the good. While I won’t go that far, it is certainly true that the hard times can help us to appreciate the calmer periods—and maybe be more content. We might also become more aware that life can be fleeting, and want to make the most of our moments. One survivor mentioned appreciating the beauty in a summer tree with its full regalia of leaves. “I no longer worry so much about material things,” she says. “It’s more about experiencing life, not having the right clothes or car.”
Spirituality: Spiritual growth after trauma might involve religious activity, such as attending services and praying more. Or, include spiritual thinking such as seeing nature as a community to which humans belong. A person might seek answers in order to gain a sense of peace, or embark on a spiritual quest of to make sense of heaven, hell, or life after death. After trauma, spirituality can be an avenue of personal growth that offers hope or provides security.
A better you through sharing after a suicide
In the study, those who told others about the death and shared their feelings after a loved one’s suicide were freed in their personal growth. Consider ways you can communicate—and benefit.
If you have someone you can talk to, cherish the relationship. Not everyone will feel comfortable discussing the suicide. To heal, you do need to find helpful ways to grieve. Sharing can help survivors of suicide to get past the shock, step forward with a positive outlook, and even grow from the experience.
Journaling in a private notebook, or publicly sharing on bereavement sites after a suicide by a loved one were two of the ways discussed in my recent post, Left behind after a loved one’s suicide: Permission to grieve . You might also share by taking the survey, The Impact of Suicide. As others have said they did, you might find that typing out your answers provides you with some valuable insight and allows a safe space to share your feelings. You’ll also be helping others because survey results will steer future content to help others heal after a loved one’s suicide.
Adapting after a suicide: What’s your perspective?
The study about sharing after a suicide followed a broader one from the previous year. In that study, adaptive cognitive strategies were a part of positive growth. To help yourself, look back at the five areas outlined above, and consider how you can learn from the questions and examples—and adapt in your thinking.
You might also find it helpful to know that the passage of time also figures into an individual’s stress related personal growth. That’s because perspective can play such a big part in how we view the crises in our lives. Just as we can look back on things we’ve gone through and derive strength from the knowledge that we endured and even grew into better persons because of those troubles, we can also look forward.
In the midst of grief after a loved one’s suicide, it may be difficult to consider the future—but purposeful nurturing of a positive outlook helps. Despite how you may feel today, imagine yourself six months from now happy. Cultivate hope. Many others have lived through the horror of a loved one’s suicide, have positively adapted to the loss, and have grown personally in a variety of ways that are helpful to them and the people around them—and so can you.
Levi-Belz, Y. (2015). Stress-related growth among suicide survivors: The role of interpersonal and cognitive factors. Archives Of Suicide Research, 19(3), 305-320. doi:10.1080/13811118.2014.957452
Levi-Belz, Y. (2016). To share or not to share? The contribution of self-disclosure to stress-related growth among suicide survivors. Death Studies, 40(7), 405-413. doi:10.1080/07481187.2016.1160164
Smith, J.L. & Hollinger-Smith, L. (2015). Savoring, resilience, and psychological well-being In older adults. In McGregor, Sheri. (2016), Done with the crying: Help and healing for mothers of estranged adult children, pg. 321. San Marcos California: Sowing Creek Press