Resilience and Post-Traumatic Growth

May 2, 2022

By Ken Barringer

What is the deal with resilience? I struggle at times with resilience as a concept. Resilience as a stand-alone feels like a tasty food that is missing one key ingredient. As we are prone to do when we seek information, we enter the query into a search engine. When I did that for “resilience” one of the questions from the search that popped up was “Is resilience a negative or positive word?” Oh.

My sense is in any casual survey of people asked the question “Is resilience a good thing?” responses would be various forms of “yes”. So why the question of it being a negative or positive word? Perhaps the definition of resilience from the Merriam-Websters dictionary could shed some light.

  1. The capability of a stressed body to recover its size and shape after deformation caused by compressed stress.
  2. An ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortunate or change.

Since this space is dedicated to grief, death and nondeath losses, let’s look at this definition as it relates to that. 

I have worked with many clients who feel they are not resilient and are concerned about how they are going forward. Perhaps this is because resilience seems to be an outcome. One thing we know about grief is that when we have a loss of significance we never go back to our previous size and shape. We try and adjust to our new life without the loss object. It would make going back to the way we were actually unhealthy, unrealistic or keep us in some form of denial. Accordingly, if I do not regain my “size and shape after deformation caused by stress” am I not resilient? With the second definition, how are we defining “recover from or adjust easily”? Is there a timeline when this is supposed to occur or expire? What is often implied is that one should be demonstrating resilience because of going through a very difficult time.  Margaret Stroebe and Henke Schutt developed the “dual-process model of grief” which, succinctly, is oscillating between loss-orientation and restoration-orientation to manage grief. One of my favorite examples to highlight this model is of the widowed husband lying in bed fiercely missing his wife when he notices the room needs dusting and vacuuming and he gets up and does this. Is this ‘healthy grieving”, adjusting to misfortune and change? I would say yes. The controversy around this model is that it’s not a neat, clean way of “adapting well”. You are supposed to work through your grief and this model encourages you to distract yourself from time-to-time in order to function. Is there resilience here. I would say yes, but not according to the definition.

I’d like to introduce the concept of Post-Traumatic Growth and see how it blends with resilience. PTG is defined as: positive change that follows the struggle after some type of traumatic event. Changes that occur after life crisis. Factors that can contribute to post-traumatic growth are the ability to develop a new perspective or meaning making of the experience. Another factor would be the ability to increase self-compassion. In other words, post traumatic growth is a process and an outcome. Dr. Joel Bennet has developed the 5 c’s that can contribute to resilience: Centering (Coping), Confidence (Control), Community (Care), Commitment (Calling), Compassion (Character). These seem to dovetail nicely with the factors that contribute to post-traumatic growth. 

Clearly, there are many who struggle with meaning making in the after math of a significant loss. The reasons of which are too many to list here. However, many do “adapt well” to loss but might not meet the societal understanding of what resilience means, therefore disenfranchising themselves. Adding insult to injury can be the feeling of I’m grieving a loss and failing resilience.

 Let’s be mindful of the words we use. Your loss will never get smaller, but your world can get bigger. This is a post-traumatic growth and resilient mindset.