It is hard to be grateful for things that are always present and familiar. This is the experience of “taking things for granted.” When losses occur, a new perspective is possible: “you don’t miss your water until your well runs dry.” Or, if you prefer a relationship-oriented example: “you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone.”
Trauma often provides the loss, temporary or permanent, that can heighten a sense of gratitude. Of course, the loss must also be mourned. It has to be a substantial loss of something valuable in order to propel one to true gratitude.
We are confronted with the paradox of posttraumatic growth which takes many forms, in this case, it is grief bringing us gratitude. This also highlights the reality that posttraumatic growth is no easy journey. The losses can be deaths, major life opportunities and investments, or our core beliefs. It may take some time for there to be a glimpse of what of value may be hidden in this experience of loss. On the other hand, there may be an appreciation for what has not been lost.
A valuable and relatively common lesson given to us from loss is that life has much to provide. Life offers us a new set of priorities or awakens those priorities that were once there, but have been dormant for some time. We are gifted a greater appreciation for what we have, whether it be material items, health, or relationships. For many trauma survivors, even the most basic aspects of life (the smell of coffee in the morning, laughter of a child) are seen as incredible gifts.
Loss Can Propel Change
When a person confronts loss, whether it be real (death of a loved one) or imagined (fear that a spouse is being unfaithful), it causes him or her to consider how precious and fleeting life can be. This in turn leads to a new way of looking at one’s priorities and what it means to fully embrace life and what it has to offer.
This change is often dramatic in nature. Change doesn’t occur in a vacuum. The loss that propels this change spurs questions that must be confronted. Questions such as “what is important to me?”; “what value do I place on relationships versus material goods?”; and “what regrets will I have if I die today?” Obviously, these are not easy questions to answer, but they are important to consider.
Threatened and actual loss lead to an acute and profound appreciation for simply being alive. I have worked with many combat veterans, who shortly after narrowly escaping death, state: “I am so grateful to be alive.” Others have told me that their first thought after witnessing a horrific event is that “I have been given a second chance in life.”
This newfound gratitude is a key component of appreciation for life. It causes one to slow down and “smell the roses.” It leads to a deeper satisfaction and contentment with life.
Following trauma, this appreciation for life takes a variety of shapes and manifests itself differently in different people. In some, they approach life more carefully. “Never again will I rush into a dangerous situation without thinking first” may be the stance of one combat veteran.
In contrast, a veteran exposed to the same event may believe, “I won’t waste another minute of my life over-thinking things and will take more risks.” Both are shifts in perspectives, but the perspectives are not the same and the approach to life is different.
Life passes quickly and is finite. We understand this at a superficial, cerebral level. It’s only when our sense of safety, stability, and mortality are shaken that we truly understand these facts and what they mean for how we choose to live our lives.
Hardship has a great way of orienting us to what’s important. It forces us to stop and smell the roses and to appreciate what we’ve got before it’s no longer there. It’s unfortunate that it often takes a traumatic event to open our eyes. But thankfully, since almost all of us will experience trauma at some point in our lives, it’s comforting to know that we can not only survive but thrive from the worst that life has to offer.
*This article was adapted from Dr. Moore’s upcoming book, Transformed by Trauma: Stories of Posttraumatic Growth.