Category Archives: Post-Traumatic Growth

Hot Comfort

Hot ComfortRichard Easterling, 2014



“Love is a Temple
Love a Higher Law” U2, One

“I don’t even know what I would have wanted someone to say.  Not:  It will be better.  Not:  You don’t think you’ll live through this, but you will.  Maybe:  Tomorrow you will spontaneously combust.  Tomorrow, finally, your misery will turn to wax and heat and you will burn and melt till nothing is left in your chair but a greasy, childless smudge.  That might have comforted me.”  Elizabeth McCracken, An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination


I went through one of those trap door rabbit holes in cyber space the other day and ended up reading about the Temple at Burning Man.  Burning Man, of course, is the yearly art festival in the Nevada desert that is famous for a number of things, including the practice of setting fire to many of the art pieces.  My only experience at Burning Man was in 2014.  There were a million bits of wonder and feeling that came up for me in my time there.  It’s quite an event.  Look at pictures from any year and you’ll get an idea of what I’m talking about.

A participant may see a giant Golden Dragon with beautiful people on board partying at sunrise, flying zoetrope monkeys powered by drumming and a Barbie Death Camp.  In this gift economy, someone may offer to write the theme song for your life or make a sundae on your tongue.  You may get stuck in a sandstorm which leaves you stranded and disoriented and when it clears, a stranger may come along and offer you the best grilled cheese sandwich you’ve ever had–  it’s kind of like that.  And, because someone else is bound to tell you if I don’t, I should say that there are a fair amount of nude people.  Also, it’s hot, really hot.  Did I mention that it takes place in a desert?

Since 2000, one of the traditions at Burning Man has been the construction of a temple.  Various architects, the most well-known being David Best, have designed a different wooden creation every year.  Like may things at Burning Man, it is done on a grand scale.  The physical construction begins off site months before the event and continues on site in the weeks leading up to the festival.  Built to last only a brief time in an intense environment, every year the temple seems to be an extremely well thought out, intricate and gorgeous structure.

During the festival, the Temple is a gathering place of memory and reflection.  People bring pictures, personal belongings, and letters.  Pens and markers are available for writing on the wood.  It gets filled up with the space between the living and the dead.  It is a place of feeling and remembrance and is often packed with people walking, sitting, and lying down inside the walls.  During the week of the festival, it feels like an inviolate and solemn place.  And on the last night of the event, it burns.

Like other burns, it is done at a specific time, after it is emptied out and sealed up, with tens of thousands watching from a safe distance, feeling whatever they are going to feel.  People talk about it as a release, a spiritual catharsis.  It’s whatever you need it to be.

The McCracken quote above is from a book written about her experience of having a stillborn son.  This passage made me think about Burning Man and the Temple.  At first I wondered what about being told that you will be melted down could be comforting.  After baby loss, isn’t a person already so hurt and distressed that losing more of themselves is what they fear most?

But after considering McCracken’s words, I wonder if she is saying simply that it would take a dramatic, destroying image to resonate with what she felt inside.  Maybe she was responding to the knowledge that her pain wasn’t a brief illness that she would temporarily dip in and out of, but rather a loss that would take much more of her than that.  Maybe only a gutted, burnt out metaphor was a match for what she felt and the place she would be coming from to face whatever was next.  Maybe what she could identify with most was the idea of burning through every feeling and being taken down to almost nothing.

I wouldn’t confuse this with hopelessness.  A forest cleared by fire will have a next stage of growth.  A person who hurts to his or her core will still eventually let in new bits of life.  And every year a desolate playa in Nevada turns into a giant, vibrant city.

The time I went to Burning Man, the temple was filled with pictures, handwritten letters, pieces of cloth, at least one pine cone and some stuffed animals.  Robin Williams had just died, and there were several areas with his picture and notes to and about him. There were goodbyes written on the walls to every kind of loved one.  There were memorials to pets.  There were pictures of moms, dads, grandparents and the kind of friends that are family.

There were small items meant for newborns.  There were photographs of and names of babies, notes to and about the ones who didn’t make it into this world as well as infants who were no longer living.

On the last night, I pedaled to the temple burn at sunset along with others on foot or on bike–past the ashes from another burn, then a metal octopus, a miniature log cabin on wheels, a big group of people in sailor suits, a line of giant teapots strung together and some people sitting inside a neon star.

When I saw the temple burn, the first change I noticed was a soft orange glow inside, then flames outside.  The smoke moved softly and adamantly in one direction.  The moon looked tiny.  Everything seemed to slow while a small corner of the desert burned down into something else.



Post-Traumatic Growth

“To grow, something must be either incomplete or damaged.”  Hansjörg Znoj

“There will come a time when you believe everything is finished. That will be the beginning.”     Louis L’Amour


“I experienced mother love and that has added to my life.”

“Surviving my losses has taught me more about who I am.”

“Now I see what’s important.”


Throughout different cultures and times, it has been frequently observed that the challenge of coping with an event that has brought about great suffering can also lead to positive change.  This is not to in any way minimize the emotional devastation of the loss of a pregnancy or child or any other painful and life-changing event.  It is only to say that from such a desolate place, people often undergo, in the words of Calhoun and Tedeschi (2006),  “positive change experienced as a result of the struggle with a major life crisis or traumatic event” or Post-Traumatic Growth.

This is a touchy subject to address.  It can be very challenging and uncomfortable to believe that something good could come out of something so painful.  Specifically, it can bring up concerns that any positive outcome after perinatal loss is somehow disloyal to the baby.  These are understandable and not uncommon worries.  It can also make people wonder– does acknowledging a positive side to a loss imply that you would choose to go through it?   I don’t believe so.  I know for myself that I would definitely choose the version of my life where my baby had lived over a chance for personal growth or any other prize behind door number two.

So this is an area where I tread carefully with bereaved men and women.  I usually do  a lot more following than leading toward this subject.  But I also think there can be a reason to go there.  I think it’s worthwhile, and occasionally life-saving, to know that others have been in your shoes and that they got through it.   Additionally, it can help to know that some of them, in their process of coping and understanding,  found that their lives changed in some way for the better.  It also addresses the concern that many people have after a life-changing event–  “How will I get back to normal?”  The answer may be that you won’t, and that may not be a bad thing.

What kind of positive change do people tend to experience after a life crisis?  In the Handbook of Posttraumatic Growth, Calhoun and Tedeschi note their qualitative research on PTG, which led to identification of five domains of growth.  The categories are new personal strength, new possibilities, relating to others, appreciation of life and spiritual change.  Here is a brief look at how each of these areas might relate to someone who has experienced a perinatal loss.

Personal Strength   I have often heard clients express surprise at what they have been able to live through.  Calhoun and Tedeschi capture the sentiment of many after a trauma,  “I am more vulnerable than I thought, but much stronger than I imagined.”  Having survived something they did not expect to face, people may approach the future with less fear.

In relation to perinatal loss, this can sometimes be helpful for those who decide to try to conceive again.  Trying again after loss is typically a very loaded issue in which people are balancing tentative hopes and vivid fears.  Faced with the prospect of investing again in a process where they are keenly aware that things can go wrong, people may be able to use the awareness of their strength to address the fears in another pregnancy.  They may feel that they can survive something so difficult because they already have.  For those who decide to not try for another baby, the knowledge of their strength may increase confidence in any future endeavor.

New Possibilities   If something unimaginably bad has happened, maybe the field of possibility can be stretched both ways.  Unexpected loss is a strong reminder that life can proceed in an unplanned and unanticipated manner.  Through both luck and effort, desired changes can also happen.

Women and men often speak of a broadened view of the world after a perinatal loss.  I have known many people to see the event as a crossroads in their life.  Some women and men decide to change professions to something that has more meaning to them.  Some people become very clear that they wish to become a parent by trying to conceive again, some decide to build their family through adoption or other ways and some decide they will not have children but will attach to other meaningful things in their life.

Relating to Others  Relationships with those who are still here can feel more precious when we’re missing our babies.   It may feel similar to the sentiment sung by Meghan Trainor, “I’m going to love you like I’m going to lose you, I’m going to hold you like we’re saying goodbye.”  We never know what lies ahead, and that uncertainty makes us want to embrace the time we have with those we love.  Despite the stress that perinatal loss puts on a couple, there can also be a sense of wanting to hold partners closer after loss.

Some family and friends may have offered themselves as support in a way that deepens and enriches the relationship.  Children, whether already in the family or imagined in the future, may be all the more valued.  Some people find that relationships with others who have experienced baby loss help them to understand their new world.  After a perinatal loss, many people report increased empathy for others in general, making all of their relationships feel a bit deeper.

Appreciation of Life   Perinatal loss puts us directly in touch with both birth and death, and is a reminder of how fragile life can be.  As a result, it can lead to greater appreciation of this life and this moment.   Feeling the warm sun on your face, sharing time with an elderly relative or engaging in a favorite hobby may all take on heightened value when one has been made so aware of the finite and uncertain elements of life.

Spiritual Change   Losing a baby often challenges our understanding of how the world works.  For some, that leads to a new or deeper understanding of spiritual connections.  A man who was raised in the Catholic church may find great comfort in returning to the rituals of the church to process and cope with the loss of his baby.  A woman may find increased meaning and spirituality in nature and the beauty she sees in her everyday world.  It is not uncommon to experience an expanded sense of being, which may bring up existential questioning and growth related to our place and purpose in the world.

Summary   Post-traumatic growth doesn’t always happen to those who have suffered loss and it’s not the only way to get through the experience and back to a satisfying life.  However, it can be important to know that it exists and that it doesn’t have to be big and dramatic to be meaningful.  Yes, some people will start an organization, join the Peace Corps, or in some other way show a dramatic change in the focus of their lives.  But that’s not the road for all of us.  We may experience our growth in other ways such as feeling closer to our loved ones, being more self-aware and compassionate or appreciating our world in a more profound way.