The One I Become Will Catch Me
In the depths of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.
AS A PHYSICIAN, Joe Kasper devoted most of his career to treating patients with life-threatening illnesses. Still, when his teenage son Ryan was diagnosed with a rare and fatal form of epilepsy, he felt completely at a loss. “In a few short moments, I learned my son’s fate and there was nothing I could do about it—no hope for a cure,” Joe wrote. “It was like seeing my son tied to a railroad track with a locomotive right around the bend and having to look on in helpless frustration and despair.”
A traumatic experience is a seismic event that shakes our belief in a just world, robbing us of the sense that life is controllable, predictable, and meaningful. Yet Joe was determined not to get sucked into the void. “When we are no longer able to change a situation,” psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl observed, “we are challenged to change ourselves.”
After his son’s diagnosis, Joe wanted to learn everything he could about recovery from trauma. His search led him to the work of UNC Charlotte professors Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun. The two psychologists were treating grieving parents and expected to see signs of devastation and post-traumatic stress, which they did. But they also found something surprising. The parents were all suffering and would have done anything to bring their children back. At the same time, many also described some positive outcomes in their lives following loss. It seems hard to believe, but as time passed, instead of post-traumatic stress, some of the parents experienced post-traumatic growth.
Psychologists went on to study hundreds of people who had endured all kinds of trauma: victims of sexual assault and abuse, refugees and prisoners of war, and survivors of accidents, natural disasters, severe injuries, and illnesses. Many of these people experienced ongoing anxiety and depression. Still, along with these negative emotions there were some positive changes. Up to that point, psychologists had focused mostly on two possible outcomes of trauma. Some people struggled: they developed PTSD, faced debilitating depression and anxiety, or had difficulty functioning. Others were resilient: they bounced back to their state before the trauma. Now there was a third possibility: people who suffered could bounce forward.
Adam told me about post-traumatic growth four months after Dave died. It didn’t sound real to me. Too catchphrasey. Too unlikely. Sure, there might be people who could grow from tragedy, so you could hold this out as hope to someone who had just lost her husband. But it wasn’t going to happen for me.
Adam understood my skepticism and admitted that he didn’t even mention this possibility for the first few months because he knew I would dismiss it. But now he thought I was ready. He told me that more than half the people who experience a traumatic event report at least one positive change, compared to the less than 15 percent who develop PTSD. Then he did something super annoying: he quoted me to me. “You often argue that people can’t be what they can’t see,” Adam said. “That girls aren’t studying computer science because they don’t see women in computer science. That women don’t reach for leadership roles because they don’t see enough women in leadership roles. This is the same thing. If you don’t see that growth is possible, you’re not going to find it.” I agreed I would try to see it. And I had to admit that post-traumatic growth sounded a lot better than a life filled with sadness and anger.
That’s when I learned about Joe Kasper. Tragically, his son Ryan died three years after the diagnosis, thrusting Joe into what he describes as “the emotional tsunami of his death. If there is anything more painful in life, I hope never to discover it.” Joe vowed not to let the tsunami pull him under. He decided to study positive psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, where Adam was one of his professors. Joe learned that post-traumatic growth could take five different forms: finding personal strength, gaining appreciation, forming deeper relationships, discovering more meaning in life, and seeing new possibilities. But Joe wanted to do more than study Tedeschi and Calhoun’s findings; he wanted to live them.
Nietzsche famously described personal strength as “what does not kill me makes me stronger.” Tedeschi and Calhoun have a slightly softer (one could say less Nietzschean) take: “I am more vulnerable than I thought, but much stronger than I ever imagined.” When we face the slings and arrows of life, we are wounded and the scars stay with us. But we can walk away with greater internal resolve.
I can’t imagine. People continued to say this to me and I agreed with them. It was all I could do to live through the moments when it hurt so much. In the depths of acute grief, I did not think I would be capable of growing stronger. But as excruciating days turned into weeks and then months, I realized that I could imagine because I was living it. I had gained strength just by surviving. In the words of an old adage: “Let me fall if I must fall. The one I become will catch me.”
Slowly, very slowly, a new sense of perspective began seeping into my daily life. In the past, when my children faced challenges I would get anxious and Dave would reassure me. Now it is up to me to stay calm on my own. Before, if my daughter came home upset that she didn’t make the soccer team with her friends, I would’ve encouraged her to keep practicing while secretly worrying that she was disappointed. Now I think, “This is great. A normal kid problem! What a relief to be in a normal-problem zone.” Note to self: think these thoughts but do not say them out loud.
My childhood friend Brooke Pallot endured an arduous adoption process filled with huge disappointments, which melted away when she finally held her baby. In the happy months that followed, Brooke met Meredith, another new mom. Meredith had struggled to get pregnant and the two women bonded over their “miracle babies.” The kids connected too, becoming what Brooke called “little baby besties.” Then one day Meredith found a small lump under her armpit. She was only thirty-four and felt perfectly healthy but had it checked anyway. A PET scan revealed that she had stage 4 breast cancer. In addition to offering Meredith her full support, Brooke felt compelled to get her own mammogram. When she tried to schedule it, her gynecologist’s office advised her to wait half a year until she turned forty and insurance would cover the cost. But Brooke insisted on the test, which revealed that she had stage 4 breast cancer too.
The two friends went through chemotherapy together. Brooke responded to the treatment, but Meredith’s cancer had already spread to her liver. She died three years later. “I always tell her parents, her husband, and her daughter that she was my angel,” Brooke now says. “What saved me is that they caught my cancer before it had gone to any vital organs. And that is because of Meredith.”
Brooke has been in remission for seven years and in addition to gaining physical strength, she has gained emotional strength. “I went through chemo and buried my young friend. That gives you perspective whether you’re looking for it or not. The little things don’t stress me out. I am much stronger, much more centered and reasonable now. Something that sent me spinning before I now see as relative to what could have been and I am like, ‘Ah, that’s nothing. I am here.’ ”
This is the second area of post-traumatic growth that Tedeschi and Calhoun identified: gaining appreciation. In the first month after Dave died, I received an amazingly supportive call from Kevin Krim. Kevin and I had only met in passing, but we had close friends in common and I knew he had suffered an unthinkable tragedy. In 2012, after a swimming lesson with their three-year-old daughter Nessie, Kevin’s wife Marina returned to their New York apartment to find that their nanny had stabbed their six-year-old daughter Lulu and their two-year-old son Leo to death.
When I saw Kevin months after his loss, I could barely speak, not knowing what if anything to say. Now he was calling to comfort me. I asked Kevin how in the world he had gotten through it. He told me that in his eulogy he explained, “I worry that we might be tempted, in the face of such obliterating darkness, to retreat from the world, but…I heard this quote that I think is very important here. It goes, ‘He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.’ Marina and Nessie, you are my WHY.” Kevin told me how grateful he felt that his daughter had survived and his marriage was strong. He and Marina decided to have more children and they felt fortunate that they were able to. Since Lulu and Leo loved art, Kevin and Marina started ChooseCreativity.Org, a nonprofit that teaches creativity to disadvantaged children. Kevin and Marina are finding post-traumatic growth by adding more love and beauty to the world…which is an act of love and beauty itself.
It is the irony of all ironies to experience tragedy and come out of it feeling more grateful. Since I lost Dave, I have at my fingertips this unbelievable reservoir of sadness. It’s right next to me where I can touch it—part of my daily life. But alongside that sadness, I have a much deeper appreciation for what I used to take for granted: family, friends, and simply being alive. My mom offered a helpful comparison. For sixty-six years, she never thought twice about walking, but as she aged, her hip deteriorated and walking became painful. After hip replacement surgery four years ago, she feels grateful for every step she is able to take without pain. What she feels on a physical level, I feel on an emotional level. On the days that I’m okay, I now appreciate that I’m walking without pain.
There were times when I’d felt this appreciation before. After college, I worked for the World Bank’s India health team on leprosy eradication. I visited treatment centers and hospitals all over India and met hundreds of patients, many of whom had been kicked out of their villages and were living in abject poverty and isolation. My first trip lasted a month. I got through each day trying to be professional and then cried myself to sleep each night. It put all of my problems into perspective. I remember thinking that I would never complain about anything in my life again—I would appreciate my good fortune to be born into a community with the resources to invest in health care. But over the years, that perspective faded and life went back to how it was before.
Now I’m determined to hold on to this gratitude. When I asked Brooke how she does it, she said she reminds herself regularly of what she could have lost. “I’m watching Meredith’s daughter grow up and trying to be present in her life in every way that I can. Each time I look at my little girl, I remember that my friend isn’t here to raise her daughter. I know how lucky I am.” Brooke makes a conscious effort to mark the milestones. “Every year I celebrate that I got another year with my daughter,” Brooke told me. “Seven years ago I didn’t think I would see her second birthday.”
After loss, the emptiness of birthdays, anniversaries, and holidays can be especially hard. Brooke encouraged me to see these milestones as moments to be cherished. I used to celebrate my birthday every five years, feeling like only the birthdays with the zeros and fives were special occasions. Now I celebrate every one because I no longer take for granted that the next birthday will come. Long gone are the jokes I used to make about not wanting to grow old (and working for a boss who is fifteen years my junior, I used to make those jokes a lot). After we lost Dave, my friend Katie Mitic started writing letters to her friends on their birthdays, letting them know how much they mean to her. Some of her friends have followed her lead, showing pre-traumatic growth. They learned lessons in life that I learned only from death.
Last fall, Malala Yousafzai and her father Ziauddin came to my house to discuss her work fighting for all girls to have access to education. They stayed for dinner with Katie, her husband Scott, and my kids, and we all went around the table to share our best, worst, and grateful moments of the day. Scott said that he had spent the past week worried about how one of their children was adjusting to a new school, but listening to Malala reminded him how grateful he should be that his kids have a school to attend. Malala then shared her own gratitude story. She told us that after she was shot by the Taliban, her mother started giving her birthday cards dated from the beginning of her recovery. When Malala turned nineteen, the card said, “Happy 4th birthday.” Her mother was reminding her daughter—and herself—that Malala was lucky to be alive.
We don’t have to wait for special occasions to feel and show gratitude. In one of my favorite studies, people were asked to write and deliver a thank-you note to someone who had shown them unusual kindness. This pleased the receivers but it also made the note writers feel significantly less depressed, and the gratitude afterglow stayed with them for a month. When Adam shared this research with me, I realized why it works: in the moments I spend thanking my friends and family, my sadness is pushed into the background.
My friend Steven Levitt lost his one-year-old son Andrew to meningitis in 1999. Sixteen years later, he told me that “with each passing year, the balance tipped a little more toward an appreciation of what there once was and away from the horror of what was lost.” As time has passed, I too have greater appreciation for the time Dave and I spent together and for the time I have now.
Eleven days before the anniversary of his death, I broke down crying to a friend. We were sitting—of all places—on a bathroom floor. I said, “Eleven days. One year ago, he had eleven days left. And he had no idea.” Looking at each other through tears, we asked how he would have lived if he had known he had only eleven days left—and if we could live going forward with the understanding of how precious every single day is.
Tragedy does not always leave us appreciating the people in our lives. Trauma can make us wary of others and have lasting negative effects on our ability to form relationships. Many survivors of sexual abuse and assault report that their beliefs about the goodness of others remain shattered and they have difficulty trusting people. After losing a child, parents often have a harder time getting along with relatives and neighbors. After losing a spouse, it’s common for people to argue more with friends and feel insulted by them.
But tragedy can also motivate people to develop new and deeper relationships. This is the third area of post-traumatic growth. Soldiers who experience significant losses during war are more likely to have friendships from their service forty years later. After heavy combat, they value life more and prefer to spend their time with people who share that understanding. Many breast cancer survivors report feeling greater intimacy with family and friends.
When people endure tragedies together or endure the same tragedy, it can fortify the bonds between them. They learn to trust each other, be vulnerable with each other, depend on each other. As the saying goes: “In prosperity our friends know us. In adversity we know our friends.”
One of the most striking examples of how adversity can drive people to build stronger connections is Stephen Thompson. Growing up, he and his four younger siblings were frequently homeless, sleeping in shelters and cars. His mother struggled with severe drug and alcohol problems and the family often went hungry, sometimes stealing food from local grocery stores. Stephen had to take care of his siblings and missed so much school that he fell behind. His teachers assumed he had learning disabilities and placed him in special education classes. Once, while he was living with his grandmother, a SWAT team came looking for his mom, who hid behind a door. A policeman later explained that she and her boyfriend had blown up a bridge during a political protest.
When Stephen was nine years old, his mother abandoned him and his siblings in a hotel room. It took three days before child protective services found them. This turned out to be the bottom that Stephen was able to kick against to start his rise to the surface. “Our lives before were unbearably stressful,” he said. “When she left us in that hotel, it was almost a gift—a new beginning for us.”
Stephen believes that his resilience came from learning at a young age to view this extreme trauma as a chance to form new relationships. He spent a few months in a foster home on a street near his siblings and was then sent to live in a state home for children. Once he started going to school regularly, he was able to form stable friendships. His new friends invited him over for Thanksgiving and Christmas and he had the chance to celebrate the holidays with their families. Then the mother of a close friend changed everything by asking Stephen to live with them permanently. “It was one of the most powerful lessons of my life, because it really showed me the kindness of others,” Stephen told us. “I realized that friends can become your family.” He made a pact with himself to always be there for his friends. “To call at tough times. To really try and connect with people and get to know them.” I got to know Stephen when we worked together at Google, where he turned his remarkable ability for connecting with people into a career as an executive recruiter.
The fourth form of post-traumatic growth is finding greater meaning in life—a stronger sense of purpose rooted in a belief that one’s existence has significance. In Viktor Frankl’s words, “In some way, suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning.”
Many find meaning in discovering religion or embracing spirituality. Traumatic experiences can lead to deeper faith, and people with strong religious and spiritual beliefs show greater resilience and post-traumatic growth. Rabbi Jay Moses, who officiated at my and Dave’s wedding, told me that “finding God or a higher power reminds us that we are not the center of the universe. There is much we don’t understand about human existence, and there is order and purpose to it anyway. It helps us feel that our suffering is not random or meaningless.”
Yet that suffering can also test our faith in God’s benevolence. Laverne Williams, a church deacon from Montclair, New Jersey, told us that when she was struggling with depression and her sister was diagnosed with cancer, she questioned God. “There are times when I’ve been angry at God—‘How can you let this happen?’ ” she said. But then she remembered that “it’s not about praying to God to fix everything. He’s not a magic genie where you can ask for certain things and only the good things pop out.” Still, her faith helped her reject permanence: “Even when you are in the darkest hours you can stay hopeful. That’s the thing about faith…it helps you know that sooner or later this too shall pass.”
Last spring, I read an open letter from NFL veteran Vernon Turner to his younger self. The letter graphically described how he was conceived: his mother was an eighteen-year-old track star who was attacked on the street, injected with heroin, and gang-raped. When Vernon was eleven years old, he walked in on his mother shooting heroin in their bathroom. Instead of sending him out, she said, “I want you to see me do this because I don’t ever want you to do this….Because this is going to kill me.” Four years later, her words proved tragically true. At first, a stepfather took care of Vernon and his four younger siblings, but during Vernon’s freshman year of college, his stepfather passed away too. Not even twenty years old, Vernon was solely responsible for his family.
I was so moved by the letter that I reached out to him. Vernon explained to me that at that point, he hit rock bottom. “I thought I was being punished. First God took my mom, then my dad. Now I was going to lose my family. I got on my knees and prayed. I asked God to show me how to help my family.” Vernon thought the only way he could earn enough money to provide for them was to play in the NFL. He was a star for a Division II college team but had been told repeatedly that he wasn’t tall enough, strong enough, or talented enough to turn pro. “I had to make it, because if I didn’t my brothers and sisters would be in foster care. I was not going to be a product of my DNA. I was going to be a product of my actions,” he wrote.
Vernon was driven by a clear purpose. He began setting his alarm for two a.m. to start his workouts, building strength by tying a rope around his body and dragging a tire up a hill. “I pushed myself to the limit mentally and physically. I put myself through brutal hell preparing for the NFL. I had workouts I would not wish on my worst enemy—I was ready to die on the football field.” He made it into the league as a return specialist. “What triggered resilience for me,” he said, “was God giving me strength and my mom telling me, right before she died, that no matter what happens, you keep the family together. I turned to football to save my family. When they measured my stature, they failed to measure my heart.”
Family and religion are the greatest sources of meaning for many people. But work can be another source of purpose. The jobs where people find the most meaning are often ones that serve others. The roles of clergy, nurses, firefighters, addiction counselors, and kindergarten teachers can be stressful, but we rely on these often undercompensated professionals for health and safety, learning and growth. Adam has published five different studies demonstrating that meaningful work buffers against burnout. In companies, nonprofits, government, and the military, he finds that the more people believe their jobs help others, the less emotionally exhausted they feel at work and the less depressed they feel in life. And on days when people think they’ve had a meaningful impact on others at work, they feel more energized at home and more capable of dealing with difficult situations.
After Dave’s death, my work became more meaningful to me; I connected with the Facebook mission of helping people share in a way that I never had before. In 2009, my friend Kim Jabal’s brother died by suicide on his fortieth birthday. Suffering from shock, her family didn’t think they could handle a memorial service. But “people wanted to share their stories, to support us, and to support each other,” Kim told me at the time. “They did it on Facebook. An outpouring of love and support came through—every day we would read more stories, see more photos, learn about someone else who knew him and loved him.”
The same thing happened for me. I did not truly understand how important Facebook could be to those suffering from loss until I experienced it myself. During his eulogy for Dave, our friend Zander Lurie was describing Dave’s generosity when he stopped midsentence and did something that none of us had ever seen before at a funeral: he asked everyone to “raise your hand if Dave Goldberg did something to change your life for the better—provided a key insight, a valuable connection, help when you were down.” I looked behind me and saw hundreds of arms shooting into the air. There was no way to hear all those stories that day, and even if I had, I was in no state to remember them. But many are now preserved on Dave’s Facebook profile. Person after person, some with names I’d never heard, shared how Dave took time to help them get a job, start a business, support a cause. Our friend Steve Fieler posted a video of Dave cheering at a baseball game and wrote, “Dave reminded me how good it feels to cheer…and to be cheered for. He made me feel in the moment. In Silicon Valley where ‘what’s next’ trumps ‘what’s now,’ it’s rare to be as warm and present as Dave.”
For those who have the opportunity, pursuing meaningful work can help with recovery from trauma. When my friend Jeff Huber lost his wife to colon cancer, I passed along what many had told me: don’t make any big decisions in the early stages of acute grief. Fortunately, Jeff ignored my advice. He quit his job to become CEO of GRAIL, a company that aims to detect cancer in its earliest phases. “It’s like you’ve been through a portal,” Jeff told me. “You can’t go back. You’re going to change. The only question is how.” Like Joe Kasper, who could not save his son Ryan, Jeff knows he couldn’t save the one he loved most, but he hopes that earlier cancer detection will save millions of lives within the next decade. He says that he now gets out of bed every morning faster and with more energy than he ever has in his life.
Jeff has found meaning through the fifth kind of post-traumatic growth—seeing new possibilities. Tedeschi and Calhoun found that after trauma, some people ended up choosing different directions for their lives that they never would have considered before. In the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11, some Americans made dramatic changes in their careers. They joined fire departments, enlisted in the military, and entered the medical professions. Applications to Teach for America tripled, and many of the aspiring teachers said their interest stemmed from 9/11. Those seeking a change wanted to use their precious time to contribute to something larger than themselves. Before the attacks, work might have been a job; afterward, some wanted a calling. People were also more likely to find meaning after surviving a tornado, a mass shooting, or a plane crash if they believed they were going to die during the event. After being reminded of their mortality, survivors often re-examine their priorities, which in some cases results in growth. A brush with death can lead to a new life.
It’s not an easy pivot. Trauma often makes it harder to pursue new possibilities. Caring for loved ones who are sick can mean that family members have to work less or stop working altogether; almost three million Americans are caring for an adult with cancer, which takes an average of thirty-three hours a week. Along with the loss of income, high medical costs frequently decimate family budgets. Illness is a factor in more than 40 percent of bankruptcies, and there’s evidence that people with cancer are more than 2.5 times more likely to file for bankruptcy. Even relatively small unexpected expenses can have disastrous consequences: 46 percent of Americans are unable to pay an emergency bill of four hundred dollars. For people living on the edge, paid family leave, quality health care, and mental health coverage can make the difference between hanging on and falling off.
Tragedy does more than rip away our present; it also tears apart our hopes for our future. Accidents shatter people’s dreams of being able to support their families. Severe illnesses prevent people from finding work or love. Divorce erases future anniversaries (although I have a friend who celebrates her breakup each year). These profound shifts in self-perception are another secondary loss and a risk factor for depression. Our possible selves—who we hoped to become—can be collateral damage.
Although it can be extremely difficult to grasp, the disappearance of one possible self can free us to imagine a new possible self. After tragedy, we sometimes miss these opportunities because we spend all of our emotional energy wishing for our old lives. As Helen Keller put it, “When one door of happiness closes, another opens; but often we look so long at the closed door that we do not see the one which has been opened for us.”
For Joe Kasper, the breakthrough occurred when he realized that his actions could be part of his son’s legacy. While studying for his master’s degree, Joe created a therapeutic process called “co-destiny,” which encourages bereaved parents to view their child’s life in a larger framework so that death does not become the end of the story. Parents who seek purpose and meaning from their tragedies can go on to do good, which then becomes part of their child’s impact on the world. As Joe explained, “I realized that my destiny was to live my life in a way that would make my son proud. The awareness that I could add goodness to my son’s life by doing good in his name motivates me to this day.”
It’s not surprising that so many trauma survivors end up helping others overcome the adversity that they have faced themselves. “There is nothing more gratifying than helping someone else escape this quagmire of despair,” Joe told us. “I know this passion of mine is an area of personal growth related to my trauma. Helping others grow from their traumas reflects back to my son’s life.” After undergoing a hardship, people have new knowledge to offer those who go through similar experiences. It is a unique source of meaning because it does not just give our lives purpose—it gives our suffering purpose. People help where they’ve been hurt so that their wounds are not in vain.
While we are grieving, it can be hard to see through the pain to new possibilities or greater meaning. When my mom left to go home after staying with me for the first month, I was terrified. As she hugged me good-bye, she told me about a conversation she’d had with Scott Pearson, a family friend. “The week Dave died, Scott said, ‘This is the end of one chapter and the beginning of the next.’ I didn’t tell you then because I didn’t think you would’ve believed him. But I have believed it all along…and so should you.” I am not sure I could have heard this a month earlier, but on that day it gave me hope. To quote the Roman philosopher Seneca (and the song “Closing Time”): “Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.”
A few years ago, Dave and I took our children to see the play Wicked. On the way out, one of us shouted enthusiastically, “That’s my favorite musical!” You might guess it was our preteen daughter, but it wasn’t. It was Dave. His favorite song was “For Good,” when the two lead characters say good-bye and acknowledge that they may never see each other again. Together, they sing:
I do believe I have been changed for the better.
And because I knew you…
I have been changed
Dave will always be, as the song says, “a handprint on my heart.” He changed me in profound ways by his presence. And he changed me in profound ways by his absence.
It’s my deepest desire that something good will come from the horror of Dave’s death. When people say they have found comfort or strength in what I’ve shared, it honors the life Dave lived. He did so much to help others, and I hope this book reaches people and becomes part of his legacy. Perhaps this is our co-destiny.