When I was in elementary school my four-year-old niece died of leukemia. My aunt said that for years after her daughter’s death, she couldn’t see color, everything was black and white. That impacted me deeply and I often thought about that when Jesse died and wondered when it would happen to me. However, I had the opposite experience. Everything became brighter, more vivid. I saw colors I never knew existed. This is interesting because I’m an oil painter and this craft has made me even more aware of details, shade, tint, and tones. I had such relief and gratitude that my perception expanded.
Personal growth is a possibility for everyone. In fact, I believe it’s why we’re here – to learn from, grow through, and be strengthened by our experiences, both good and bad. By cultivating awareness that we can ultimately benefit from hard times in the long run, I hope to lead others to focus on their potential in life, rather than the immediate discomfort. This is an especially poignant message for our current situation with COVID. Many are struggling and ultimately this is a time when we need to unite while also setting our sights on cultivating our individual strengths.
Following Jesse’s murder, I researched Post-Traumatic Growth (PTG). I had never heard of this before yet it is something that the vast majority of us experience following difficulty in our lives. What I found was that 7% of us suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, but over 50% experience PTG following a traumatic experience. PTG is when we grow through painful experiences, learn from them, and are transformed by them in positive ways.
The benefits of PTG are numerous. We gain wisdom through our experiences, even difficult ones and this leads to personal strengthening. It gives us the feeling of, ‘We handled this, we can do whatever comes next!’ The benefits are enormous. Our relationships become closer, our sense of belonging and unity with others grows. We have a greater appreciation for our lives and everything in them. We are grateful for what we have, become more hopeful, and have the courage to choose love. We are more open to possibilities in life, are more apt to focus and achieve goals, and cultivate a greater understanding of what’s really important. We also deepen our spirituality, realizing that there is something greater than we are and we become more willing to step outside of our own wants and needs and practice proactive compassion for others.
PTSD was recently renamed Post-Traumatic Stress (PTS). Removing the word ‘disorder’ erases the stigma and encourages people to seek help, if needed. The change in diagnostic criteria moved this from the anxiety category to trauma and stressor-related as it has also been shown to include feelings of guilt, shame, and anger. Even if we experience PTS, as I have, we can move through it and even benefit from having the courage to face our pain and move through it.
Following the murder of my son, I had an experience that illustrates the power of love over fear. When I was at my weakest point, I felt a sudden surge of resilience that not only bolstered me but energized me to begin to think about a positive way forward. I was sitting on my mom’s couch a few days after the tragedy and all of a sudden I had a feeling I had never known. It was a lightness of being and it brought my mind to a standstill because it was completely different than the heaviness of heart I had been feeling. What was this? I realized it was a lack of fear. I just lost my son – what else was there to fear? I never had that feeling before and realized it was the first time I was completely without fear. Then major events in my life flashed before me and I realized almost every major decision I made, even relationships, had been based on fear. I vowed that day to CHOOSE LOVE in everything I do and to relish in the bright and vibrant colors of the world. I would not live a black-and-white world; rather, one where color and beauty is at the forefront so I can experience and appreciate every micro moment of joy. I felt the artist in me come alive to appreciate a palette of positivity and goodness.
I credit this initial lapse of fear with my ability to start the Choose Love Movement one month after my son’s murder. I also remember when the fear came back. It was about a year later and I was flying out the following day to introduce the Choose Love program to a school across the country. I thought about Jesse’s older brother, in middle school, needing his mother. What if something happened to me during my travels? I felt the return of that heaviness and dread, but this time I was able to use the Choose Love Formula as well as skills I learned while helping to develop the Choose Love lessons to overcome that fear. Using courage, I acknowledged my fear. I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and faced it. I thought about the narrative running through my mind, catastrophizing the horrible things that could happen to me during my travels and instead focused on a safe return. I shifted the focus on my lens with gratitude – grateful for JT, our home, his amazing grandmother, and the animals that would keep him company while I was away. I forgave myself for having to leave. I am a single mother that works for a living who has oftentimes felt guilt because of this. I then rejoiced in my ability to practice compassion-in-action by taking what I’ve learned from my experience and using it to help other people as I was heading off to share my story and what I’ve learned with yet another school district.
Each day, every one of us has unique opportunities to choose love over fear. In fact, we are gifted this chance every morning as each day is a new beginning, an opportunity to practice our courage to embrace change, focus on the positive, and take personal responsibility for where we are and where we’re headed. One of my practices is mentally listing gratitudes: it’s a sunny day, my son is sleeping downstairs, a cup of coffee is waiting to be made. I say a silent prayer of thanks and offer myself up to be used as an instrument of peace. Waking up this way stokes me to put my best foot forward and gives me sustained energy throughout the day to be my best. We have one life to live and we can live each day by being present and in gratitude.