Is Growth Possible after Trauma?

My new post at Preemie Babies 101 went up today; it talks about the sometimes unexpected changes that can occur after having gone through NICU trauma. Check it out: 

"...After the NICU, as we assessed what still stood around us, what hadn’t changed dramatically or crumbled in our lives, I wondered how the experience would affect my story, our story, the story of our family. Did this trauma mean that we would become a sad story? Our lives a tragedy? Would our lives forever be shifted into the shadow of grief?

The answer, unexpectedly, was no."

To read more, click here. 

4 Things About Mindfulness Anyone Can Learn from a NICU Parent

The travails of a parent with a baby in the NICU are scarcely describable in language. After what is oftentimes a traumatic birth experience or high-risk pregnancy, parents are thrust into a fast-paced medical world, bamboozled with jargon, major life decisions, separation from their babies, trauma, frequent traveling back and forth to the hospital, interaction with a multitude of strangers regarding the care and survival of their babies, and, sometimes, the isolation that comes with going through an experience quite unfathomable to most of their friends and family. Even if their baby survives the NICU and comes out unharmed, parents are often left to cope with the grief and loss that comes with having their lives upended, all that is recognizable about it stripped away, only the bare bones of their beliefs left apparent.

The experience, suffice it to say, is not something that can be wrapped up in a bow and sold as something that is “inspiring” or positive. It is, however, oftentimes a unique opportunity for parents to discover what it is about themselves that can withstand a traumatic experience, as well as what it is that they will take a stand for in moving forward. Researchers are finding that it's common for individuals who have been through a traumatic experience to find things about themselves that maybe weren't apparent before: appreciations, values, understandings, goals. In discovering these things, individuals can in a sense "reconstruct" themselves after trauma, organizing their lives in a way that honors these discoveries, feels meaningful, and that appreciates the difficulties that they've experienced. 

In going through our own experience and in reaching out to other parents who have gone through it as well, I've found there are some shifts that have commonly taken place among NICU parents. Here are a few incredible things that the circumstance imparts to many that go through it, and that can benefit anyone looking to find mindfulness in their lives: 

1.) Never underestimate the miracle of breath. There is something to be said about seeing your baby struggle to take a breath in the NICU. It washes away all cares about minor matters: things like whether you’re having a boy or a girl, whether your baby is bigger, smarter, more advanced or more beautiful than others, whether you have the perfect products to decorate their room, whether you seem to be the perfect parent or whether you're meeting the unspoken expectations of the people around you. The phenomenon of losing your care for things that really don’t matter in the long run can persist for NICU parents, and all that other stuff? In the context of breath? They lose their importance. Letting those things go can give you the ability to see, embrace and enjoy the “little things” we oftentimes unintentionally take for granted. And it’s breathtaking to witness when you’re able to appreciate it.

2.) Planning for the future doesn’t serve you very well when you’re in the moment. Going through a crisis, one can’t predict the next hour, much less the next week, of their lives. In our day to day life, when things feel simpler, or we feel more “in control”, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that the hopes and fears of the future that we hold oftentimes mean nothing in the face of what actually might happen. Letting those go and making a deliberate effort to be present can have a profoundly positive influence on your life. Embracing the unexpected can highlight the beautiful imperfections you may not have noticed in attempting to follow a plan, and can soften the blow of a challenge or disappointment.

3.)  This is water. If you’ve never heard the David Foster Wallace speech, I recommend you listen now. In it, he talks about the importance of setting aside the single-minded perspective most of us hold, of seeing things as how they affect us as opposed to deliberately creating a space for empathy, even in the most banal and frustrating of circumstances. I remember on one of the more terrible trips my husband and I took to the NICU, when William's health had taken a turn for the worst, of driving frantically to the hospital, weaving through traffic to get there as soon as possible, terrified that every moment we were absent was one we had lost forever. But, to everyone else, we likely looked like road-ragers. After that experience, I realized that the anger or annoyance that sometimes sprouts up when you’re dealing with the actions of anonymous others? It’s not worth it, because you never know what someone might be going through in that moment. Practice forgiveness; practice patience. Try to sit with the idea that all of us contend with our own struggles, our missteps and mistakes may just be indicative of the amount of pain from which we suffer. 

4.) Love is stronger than you think. It’s hard to fathom just how strong you are until you are forced into it. NICU parents are swept up into a world that’s as painful and anxiety-provoking as it is miraculous to see their tiny charges thrive. In going through it, one realizes that the love we have for each other is one of the only things clearly apparent, even in the most dire of circumstances. Many parents never could have imagined that they’d be able to manage a life in which their baby’s basic survival could be called into question on a daily basis for weeks on end; I certainly never thought that I could. But in the moment where you think you could lose everything, suddenly what you DO have becomes blatantly apparent, and, surprisingly, you can find beauty, strength, and comfort in even the simplest of expressions of love. Hold onto it as hard as you can, because the magnitude of that love will help you get through almost anything at all. 

I'm curious as to other realizations, values, beliefs or appreciations that other NICU parents may have discovered through their journey? Please feel free to share in the comments section below.

After the NICU: What Meaning do You Take with You?

After Elliott was discharged from the NICU and on quarantine, I was left with a lot of time to think. For me, having lost William and spending so many days bedside in the NICU with Elliott, it felt like my entire world had been scrambled into something almost unrecognizable in comparison with what it had looked like even months prior. Transitioning from the "survival" mode of everyday getting to the NICU, making medical decisions, consulting with doctors, nurses and therapists, working towards Elliott's various discharge goals and witnessing Elliott's progress to medical stability was difficult. I had gotten used to the fast-paced nature of the NICU, made friends with his nurses and doctors, become accustomed to the idea that every day could present a new challenge; I even had my favorite places in the hospital to get coffee or take a break from being bedside.

We shifted to a life of being at home on quarantine, adjusting to the day to day, getting used to troubleshooting issues that presented themselves on our own, spending precious alone time with Elliott and starting the process of mourning. All of the events of the past few months started to solidify in my memory, and I started to understand just how this story would profoundly change my life story. But what would that look like? Would this story transform our family into some kind of tragic example of loss? Would we fade away from our friends and family? Was there anything powerful we could take away from it, that, maybe, we wouldn't want to lose, even as painful as the experience was?

When Elliott was about six months old (three adjusted) the peace lily we had put in his room bloomed:

It bloomed in a pairing of two petals, uncommon for peace lilies, which normally  produce one white petal in their flowers.

It was a twin bloom.

When John and I saw it, we were astounded. We felt comforted by it, as if it was some kind of a signal that the earth knew what had happened, that what happened was not to be forgotten. To me, it was also a symbol that despite having gone through that pain, we had somehow been able to move forward. And though it wasn't the way we would have ever chosen to move forward, it had revealed different aspects of ourselves that maybe we hadn't ever noticed before, or seen as a strength. It reminded us that he would always be with us; that our time with him had changed us forever.

Post-traumatic growth is a newer idea in the psychological community. The premise is that after an individual goes through a traumatic or challenging life experience, they then, oftentimes, experience positive psychological changes (Tedeschi, R. & Calhoun, L., 2004). In other words, when you go through an experience in which everything you thought you knew or could rely on is somehow taken away, one oftentimes finds ways of coping with that experience by developing new beliefs or discovering inner resources that before that moment in time were not apparent. Recent articles have shown that, in fact, post-traumatic growth is often more common than the development of PTSD after someone goes through a traumatic experience.

The NICU seems to have the ability to burn away the things that perhaps seemed important in the past, but no longer hold meaning for parents. I don't know a single NICU parent who doesn't understand the very profound value, the gift, of being able to witness your child take a breath unassisted, or swallow without choking, or make eye contact even for a few fleeting moments. Things that for many parents, go (blissfully) without notice.

Oftentimes, for NICU parents, the love that we hold for our children becomes very "operational". In other words, it becomes a very deliberate act of noticing and interacting with our little ones. We go to the NICU, we make decisions and advocate for them, we learn how to participate in their therapies, and accept the problems that present themselves along the way. Love, then, is not just an idea that we have about our relationship, there are actions involved. Prior to having gone through the NICU experience, if you had asked me if I thought I could get through something as challenging, I likely would have told you that I couldn't. That I did get through it in itself is very powerful, and, for me, gave me a sense of just what parts of my sense of self would survive the NICU experience; and it was comforting to discover that it was love that survived it all. It was also awesome to see that my partner had that same sense, and that I could rely on him to carry on on the days that I couldn't.

Despite the pain and anguish of going through an experience that quite literally takes your breath away, perhaps in the survival of that, we find the parts of ourselves that are the most resilient. And I feel gratitude to my boys for having highlighted that for me with their fortitude and grace. Each year, around this time, I get reminded of it when I think to myself about the ways in which I want to move forward in the coming year.

To other NICU parents: what do you DO with the experience of having gone through the hospitalization of your baby? How does your experience make itself known in your day to day life? Have you ever been surprised at how this experience has changed your sense of self or your relationship with your little one(s)? Was there anything of value that you could find in the NICU experience?

References:

Barr, P. (2011). Posttraumatic growth in parents of infants hospitalized in a neonatal intensive care unit. Journal of Loss and Trauma. 16, 117-134.

Spielman, V. & Taubman-Ben-Ari, O. (2009). Parental self-efficacy and stress-related growth in the transition to parenthood: a comparison between parents of pre- and full-term babies. Health and Social Work. 34(3), 201-212.

Taubman-Ben-Ari, O. & Kuint, J. (2010). Personal growth in the wake of stress: the case of mothers of preterm twins. The Journal of Psychology. 144(2), 185-204.

Tedeschi, R. & Calhoun, L. (2004). Posttraumatic growth: conceptual foundations and empirical evidence, Psychological Inquiry. 15(1), 1-18.