Growth and Change Through Trauma with Gratitude and Connection

A man watches two girls play a VR motorcycle video game in an arcade
Russ fighting sensory overload in an arcade

The holiday season is upon us and that means family time and reflection. But this year just feels off. I’m not sure if it’s the change of seasons, the upcoming holidays, our added pressures at work, or just the stress of everything going on in the world, but my husband, Russ, and I have both been stressed. More than usual, he’s on edge and can be triggered far more easily. I know I have really been struggling with missing our departed daughter, Elizabeth. Family celebrations and holidays feel empty without her, but I cannot stay in this depressed state for both my own mental health and for our living daughters who are 7 and 5. Balancing the joy of new experiences while holding a place for Liz in our hearts has been tough to navigate. I know she would not want us to stay in mourning forever but grief is hard. I know my feelings and struggles are normal but there are days I wish I could move into acceptance a little faster.

I know Russ is hurting and I am struggling to help him as his caregiver because I am hurting, too.
I am sure by now you have all heard inspirational quotes about hardships being an opportunity for growth. That idea of doing the work when it gets difficult, keeping your head down, muscling through, and shaking it off all while keeping an attitude of gratitude. That pain will make you stronger. Quotes like: 

“Growth only happens outside of the comfort zone,” 


"Growth is painful. Change is painful. But nothing is as painful as staying stuck where you do not belong." — N.R. Narayana.

But can we be real for a second? That advice always strikes a nerve with me, especially when it comes too quickly after painful experiences or trauma. Can you just give me a minute to breathe, please? I get it, growth comes from recognizing strengths in times of stress but sometimes I just need a break. Sometimes I need a distraction. Rest and self-care are important. Escapism and comfort feel good. I’m an entertainer, after all, and I know the value of a good book, song, live show, movie … you name it. Enjoying characters who are going through similar struggles or those who are just written for laughs are ways Russ and I can connect. We can talk about a show — something like the new Doctor Who episodes — with characters we know who face ridiculous adversities and aliens and time travel. It’s fun. And there is heart and storytelling to help us make sense of the world and escape reality a little. The minute I stop and try to do the work — the emotional growth stuff — I find that the effort simply hurts too much. I know it must be done. Just not right now.

We have found that focusing on what we are grateful for and spending time with family and friends helps us both feel better. But there’s a catch. For most folks, attending gatherings is probably pretty easy, but families living with post-traumatic stress (PTSD) and/or brain injury have to be intentional in planning and attending events. Going out to places with many people, especially clamoring crowds near brightly lit holiday displays, can cause sensory overload. It’s just too much! This becomes especially upsetting when our young daughters want to go do something simple like take a trip to the mall to visit Santa. The act of getting out in the world, even for a short while, can be utterly exhausting. Even grocery shopping (especially before Thanksgiving) is an ordeal. We have to plan recovery time in addition to the activity. It may sound silly, but being with or around people can take a lot out of us, even friends and family. We also have to be strategic about who does what. I tend to handle hubbub better than Russ can, so I often take the girls out so their dad can rest. Or, I run the errands while he plays with the girls at home.

One recent example … we took the whole family to an indoor water park earlier this fall. There was a hotel connected so we booked a room, knowing we would need a safe space to relax. However, the park was so loud and disorienting that we needed to leave earlier than planned so Russ could reset at home. Even the hotel room was disorienting because it was new and different. The girls were understandably upset but we had the difficult but necessary conversation about their dad’s invisible wounds and reminded them that this would not be the last time we visit. Next time we know what to expect and will plan more downtime accordingly.

I suppose, in a way, I am grateful for this pain as a learning opportunity. I am grateful for learning that I am stronger than I ever thought possible. I am grateful for the opportunity to share our healing journey out loud. I am grateful for family and friends, true friends who have supported us through so much. We have friends we can escape with — watching a television show together, playing a video game, or just hanging out in a backyard. We know they won’t be upset if we need to leave earlier than planned. We are lucky that many of our friends are veterans or first responders. I am grateful we have unspoken understanding and opportunities for connection.