After my son died, I wanted to know if I could find deep joy again. In a matter of moments, my life was completely shattered. If I had not had a relationship with the Lord, then I would have felt helpless and lost. It can be hard for the wounded one to find joy again. Can deep joy be found before we are reunited with our loved ones?
In Flourishing Life: Now and in the Time to Come, Sandra Levy-Achtemeier explains what we need to find deep joy. The reality, she asserts, is that without knowing the pain of loss, we cannot experience deep joy. “Just as one cannot experience hope without knowing the pain of loss, philosophers have recognized over the millennia that one cannot experience deep joy without knowing some sorrow along the way.” Through experiencing suffering and loss, a person understands what it means to love. Deep joy is the emotion that individuals will have when they are reunited with their loved ones. Experiencing tragic losses can help us become better people. Parents, like myself, who have lost a child can be resilient in the face of adversity. Lives can be transformed and hope can be found through understanding a process of adaptation to life’s losses.
Adapting to life’s losses is not easy; it is a struggle. We struggle to form meaning in our lives after experiencing loss. We think that we have our lives all figured out until the unexpected happens. Then what we thought we knew is no longer a reality. Life suddenly does not make sense. We are in shock over the loss we endured, and this causes our self-image to shift. We suffer and as we do we feel helpless, vulnerable, lost, depressed, irritable, and angry. Parents who have lost a child feel like their future is gone. It is so hard to believe that any good can come from suffering and loss; however, good things can come. Many people gain strength where they are broken. Achtemeier says, “Persons can emerge on the other side of trauma transformed and even more perfected than before, gaining wisdom along the way.” Humans are able to flourish despite loss. But, this transformation is a process of recovery that can take months or years to happen.
This process of recovery can be further understood by exploring Achtemeier’s three areas of growth which can lead to transformation. The first area of growth is “after illusions of perfect control are broken – an increased sense of self-reliance and personal strength is often reached.” Those of us who have endured profound loss discover strengths that we did not know we had prior to experiencing the trauma. This was certainly true for me. A year after I lost my son to congenital heart disease, I found inner strength and earned a second master’s degree in theology at Union Presbyterian Seminary. I am now continuing my education as a doctoral student at The Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond.
The second area of growth is in the realm of social relationships. Achtemeier suggests, “After losing someone who is dear to us by death, or experiencing other dark verses in our life, often these researchers found an increase in compassion and empathy for other sufferers.” We can become more willing to express our emotions and share our traumas. This was also true for me when I lost my son. Conversely, though, some people will become bitter and withdraw from their family and friends. Often the death of a child will tear a marriage apart. This can happen because parents can carry such deep guilt for the loss.
I am very thankful that my marriage did not end. Instead, my husband and I grew stronger and closer together as a couple thanks to multiple sessions with a pastoral care counselor whose expertise is in grief and loss. This helped to strengthen our marriage and I personally recommend it for anyone experiencing the loss of a child or a loved one. This counseling also helped me to develop more compassion and empathy for other people like me who are suffering. It led me to make new friends with other mothers whose children have congenital heart disease. With community support, meaning can be found even in the darkest of times.
The third area of growth is the truth that we can create new meanings out of chaos. Achtemeier says, “On the other side of trauma, many who are able to flourish in a transformed way do so by making comprehensible what has happened to them by creating meaning out of the chaos of their lives.” However, while some people have great potential for growth, other people might experience the opposite and become cynical. One great aid to discovering meaning after experiencing trauma is religious belief.
The mystery of suffering in the face of loss can be left in God’s hands. Religious tradition can help add meaning to our lives despite the tragedies we experience. Achtemeier shares, “To prevent traumatic events from shaking the foundations of meaning, the individual’s sense of purpose and value must be universal and enduring.” And this ‘sacred canopy’ of meaning can be supplied by a religious community – its rituals and stories shaping our sense of what is enduring and true.” After I lost my son, my church family was my support group. They were the ones who helped to heal my soul. Worship helped bring meaning back into my life. God’s holy Word has healing power, and I found it through studying on my own and in community.
The final step in leading a life of transformation after experiencing a profound loss is being able to weave together tragic events into our life stories to achieve overall coherence as we finish our life journeys. Those of us who can use our tragic experiences to help us grow into better people will live flourishing lives. We will discover meaning that will enlighten us and we can incorporate these discoveries into our own lives, so we might be satisfied and full of pride. Personally, one of my goals after losing my child is to live a flourishing life by leaving a legacy for my son and mending broken hearts around the world.
In summary, it is possible to live a flourishing life despite suffering trauma or a tragic loss. Understanding a process of adaptation to life’s losses can help us adapt to our loss, and we can begin to heal from our pain. Out of the chaos, we can find personal strength through self-reliance. New relationships can form and we, the wounded healers, have more compassion and empathy for those who are suffering. New meanings can be created out of chaos and we can allow God to help us carry the burden of our loss. Tragic losses and trauma can be weaved together with the rest of our lives to create overall coherence. Finally, our wounds can be a source of life to others.
Tags: Meaning, Joy, Loss, Healing, Strength, Flourishing, Adapting, Resilience
 Sandra M. Levy-Achtemeier, Flourishing Life: Now and in the Time to Come, (Oregon: Cascade Books, 2012), 87.
 Achtemeier, Flourishing Life, 74.
 Achtemeier, Flourishing Life, 76.
 Achtemeier, Flourishing Life, 76.
 Achtemeier, Flourishing Life, 77.
 Achtemeier, Flourishing Life, 77.
Levy-Achtemeier, Sandra M. Flourishing Life: Now and in the Time to Come. Oregon: Cascade Books, 2012.