In the mid-90s, I was experiencing more grief and loss than I could have ever imagined. It was the height of the AIDS epidemic in Canada, and many of my friends were dying. As a young straight woman with numerous gay male friends, I was impacted by HIV/AIDS more than most of the people around me. I attended many funerals in those years and each of my 3 children attended funerals before their first birthdays. I also organized more than one memorial service (I remember Greg’s as the best one ever, if I do say so myself!).
In the midst of all this loss, I went back to school to do my PhD in social work. What began as an idea to research the forgotten children of the AIDS epidemic turned into something much more personal as I delved into coping theory. Then I learned about posttraumatic growth: “positive change experienced as a result of the struggle with a major life crisis or a traumatic event.”
I surveyed and interviewed people who had cared for or about someone who had died of an HIV-related illness. I asked them about the positives and the growth that they experienced. More than one academic told me in no uncertain terms that I was whitewashing the AIDS epidemic. But I was not. I was not glossing over any of the negative aspects. The trauma, the grief, the impact of multiple losses were and are very evident in the work that I did. Alongside the negative there were positives. Growth happened; not right away and it did not take away the pain but it did occur.
My favourite example is the man who created a scholarship in his partner’s name at the school where his partner had been a teacher. He established it 10 years after his partner died. He still missed his partner and mourned his absence. With the involvement at the school, adjudicating the scholarship, this man’s life had taken on a whole new meaning. He was eloquent in recounting the positive changes that had come about for him.
Today I am a researcher and academic with a passion for palliative care and posttraumatic growth. They do indeed go together. My PhD journey is an example of my own growth after experiencing so many friends’ deaths. Of course, I did not think of that myself. It took a good friend reading my thesis to connect those dots for me. (Thank you Douglas for your words of wisdom!)
My continued interest in posttraumatic growth is a way for me to honour my departed friends: Doyle, Greg, Bill, Jean-Pierre and others. I miss them still but I take comfort knowing how proud each one of them would be of me and how much they are a part of who I am today.
Watch and share this five minute video about the need for prophylactic end-of-life conversations. Laura Heldebrand, an ICU nurse tells her mother's story.
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