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Is trauma always devastating, leaving lasting scars that never heal and incapacitating us ever after? People endure unimaginable tragedies, and some not only manage to survive, they even flourish. Writer David Kushner, whose young brother was kidnapped and murdered by two men in Tampa, Fla., in 1973, grew up in the shadow of one of these monstrous events. His memoir about the experience, “Alligator Candy,” describes the impact it had on his family. In a brief article recently published in The New Yorker, he asks why some people are able to grow stronger as result of traumatic events.

Kushner was amazed at his parents’ ability to let him and his brother grow up fairly unrestricted by abnormal hovering. He remembers a typical boyhood, biking around the neighborhood, playing outside with other kids (it was during a bike trip to the candy store that Jon was abducted). Once he became a parent himself, he was even more surprised. His parents were showing signs of “post-traumatic growth,” something that wasn’t even on the radar until 20 years later. He writes,

A few years after Jon’s death, my parents met a man named John Brantner. He was a psychologist from the University of Minnesota Medical School who had been lecturing around the country on what he called “positive approaches to dying.” In the wake of Elizabeth Kübler-Ross’s pioneering book “On Death and Dying,” published a few years earlier, in 1969, educators such as Brantner were part of a social movement that aimed to challenge the taboos of what he called “our death-denying culture.”

“What do we know of the ones who have made a positive approach to separation, catastrophe, and death?” Brantner asked, during a presentation, in 1977. These “splendid people,” as he called them, “have come through great tribulation, are open, lack defensiveness, display intensity, purpose, passion in their lives . . . They show wisdom, serenity, a kind of wholeness, a curious lighthearted and optimistic participation.”

Before Kubler-Ross and other pioneers like her, the subject of grief as a process, one that could be openly acknowledged and discussed as natural, was largely ignored. Our culture routinely focused more on forgetting about our feelings of grief, horror or fear, rather than working them through and experiencing them openly. Children were thought to be better off if they were “protected” from the process and often their grieving was not acknowledged at all. They got the message from adults around them that they were to keep quiet about these subjects.

RELATED: Dr. Moffett on Emotional Health: Trauma, Spirituality, and Healing

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  • Diane McIntyre April 28, 2016 at 12:52 pm

    I am sorry to hear about your husband’s illness, Dr. Ford. It was
    kind of you to discuss your personal experience with such a trauma.

    I want to thank you though for letting us know that life can become more precious, experiences more vivid in a positive way, after surviving some traumas. This way of thinking about how people eventually may feel after suffering begins to subside is news to me and I suspect to many others. I plan to discuss this article with my students next week.


    Keep up the good work and I send best wishes to your husband.