Gifts of Trauma

“Adversity provides the opportunity for the best parts of us to shine” (Gail Lynn Goodwin).

I do believe that I am a better person because of adversity: stronger, more empathetic, open, authentic, and sincere.  Yet I wouldn’t say I have prayed for adversity, wished for trauma, or anticipated the wonderful lessons I would learn from tragedy!  It sure seems like some people get more than their fair share.  What I have learned from my husband’s diagnosis of cardiomyopathy is that everyone is dealing with some trauma or tragedy.   One event is not any more painful or creates any better of a person than another.  And, while I am so proud of the adults my children have become because of these life lessons, I still wish I could have spared them the experience.

Several years ago, when my children were 12 and 16 years old, my husband became gravely ill.  From symptoms to diagnosis took three weeks.  The day he was admitted to the hospital is the day we were to take our foreign exchange student to the airport.  Most of those first weeks were a blur, of course, they are for most people.  The short story is that we have a percentage of heart volume that the muscle squeezes to pump oxygen-rich blood throughout our body called an ejection fraction.  The average healthy adult would have an EF of approximately 65-70%.  Dave’s was between 15-20%, explaining the shortness of breath, swelling of legs, and the pleural effusion seen on the chest x-ray.

Extended family gathered to help me with the kids, the refrigerator that failed suddenly, and finances – my husband is self-employed and I was working part-time.  Friends brought meals, and as several folks have witnessed, shit got real.  We lived in fear until his defibrillator/pacemaker was installed.  Then we lived in fear of each new symptom or side effect from the numerous drugs he was on.  We trekked to the Cleveland Clinic for more tests and opinions, and returned home to what Dave calls his “new normal.”

We learned to laugh at the most inappropriate events, like his hallucinations from not being able to breathe and sleep at the same time.  He sat crouched beside the bed, with a blanket over his head warning me to “get down, you’re going to give away our position.”  Believing the road construction outside was a battle being fought due to severe lack of sleep.  We half-heartedly joked about who was going to go see if dad was sleeping in or not breathing!  Then we learned the humility of no longer plucking an angel off the angel tree at church to help the less fortunate.  We gratefully, if somewhat emotionally, learned what it was like to be on the receiving end of those boxes with mittens, turkey, cranberries, and more.  I will forever remember another time that the pastor’s wife held my bag for me as we went through the food pantry for the first time.  She asked, “what does that little girl that you’re helping like in her lunches,” giving me space and dignity I needed to keep from bursting into tears.

One model I’ve come across while teaching Family Risk and Resilience is the ABC-X model (credit goes to Madeline Blackwell and her awesome site:

abc-x model

For our family, the stressor event was my husband’s health crisis.  The resources became evident in my students, friends, family, community, and each other.  Thus, we had the perception that this sucked, but we could get through it.  With each stressor (or set back) we reevaluate our resources and strengthen our perception of resilience, and ultimately we manage the stress.

McCubbin and Patterson’s Double ABC-X model further demonstrates how this resilience leads to coping skills and ideally healthy adaptation to stress.  (

double abc-x

A report by Moelker, Andres, and Poot (2007) have pointed out extensive research on the benefits of social support.  The people around us that support us as we process the event(s) can lessen or strengthen the crisis being experienced.  Coping skills are imperative and the report identified these as the strongest and healthiest:

  • keeping the family ties intact;
  • developing self-confidence and self-esteem;
  • developing social support;
  • developing a positive attitude;
  • learning about a problem;
  • reducing tension by for example hobbies, talking, crying;
  • introducing balance in the coping strategies.  (See link to full report below).

I’ve since comforted a colleague whose son had the same diagnosis as my husband, but his condition deteriorated to the point that he needed a transplant.  The father had already survived lymphoma, and now his youngest son is also wearing a device for his heart.  My sister’s husband is two years out from his cancer diagnosis, and two of my siblings-in-law have lost children.  Another colleague lost a brother to muscular dystrophy when she was a child and she now volunteers to help other children who face the loss of family members.  The coping and adaptation skills of all of these families have led to gifts of resilience, to living life more fully.  They also illustrate just how pervasive tragedies or crisis are in our communities.

I no longer have tolerance for meanies, bullies, or self-righteousness.  I also have more compassion when others are upset or inappropriate, when someone doesn’t follow-through or when students complain about group projects.  You know why?  Because I’ve been that person – the one who forgot to complete grades on time, who didn’t help my colleagues on a project because Dave was in the hospital again.  I’ve had the kids have meltdowns because they just need a ride, to be on time, to know that there is something, anything, that they can count on in life.

I tell my students that they will ALL get the same grade regardless of who does how much work on a group project.  That’s what life is like.  It’s not fair.  Build relationships with people, learn to put into the universe the expectations and grace you want to receive.  One of these days you, too, will need someone to pick up the slack. Remember that.

So next time you flip me off on the highway I will figure I probably cut you off at the entrance ramp.  Inside I’ll wish you a good day and hope that everything else in your world is going well.  Even if I didn’t cut you off – I probably did to someone else who gave me a ‘pass’ and so I’ll give you one.

This brings me back to how trauma brought its own gifts.  I never realized how many friends I had!!  I didn’t know what it felt like to receive the Christmas box from a church, I appreciate each day my husband is with us, I was grateful he could walk our daughter down the aisle, I’m proud to bursting that my son is coming home to take over dad’s practice, and most of all, I’ve learned that I’m strong enough to handle almost anything.  If I fall, I have the best people in the world waiting to sit there on the curb with me and laugh at my clumsiness!!  Then – they’ll help me back to my feet and tell me it will be okay.

I got this!


Information on Cardiomyopathy:

Information on Social Support:

Supporting Military Families – A… (PDF Download Available). Available from: [accessed May 30 2018].

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