Commentary: After loss and crisis, community gave me strength

 

Tragic. Traumatic. Miraculous. These words describe my family’s past decade.

When our seemingly healthy 14-year-old daughter Laura died within days of being diagnosed with a cancerous brain tumor, my husband Ron and I were shocked and distraught.

Our sheltered family life in Bayside wasn’t supposed to unfold this way. We were overcome by the thought of never seeing Laura again and the prospect of raising our two younger daughters in a world we no longer understood or wanted to inhabit; we struggled with how to react as well as how others would expect us to behave in our new, unwanted identity — as parents of a child who had died.

Thankfully, the world we still inhabited was our familiar Jewish Milwaukee — a community which shared in our disbelief and grief, comforted us, and came to our aid during our darkest days.

Susan Angel Miller

Friends and acquaintances helped us with daily, and now overwhelming, tasks.

They were there for us, when it wasn’t easy or comfortable. I shared with them the events and emotions surrounding every parent’s worst nightmare, with surprising candor (and many more times than I’d like to admit). Sharing these experiences helped me make sense of our new reality and provided me with the motivation to reclaim the lives we’d previously loved. Their compassion and their presence helped us cope — when nothing else would.

These close relationships did not miraculously appear; they had developed over years of volunteer work with the Milwaukee Jewish Federation, our synagogue, and other local organizations, such as the Harry & Rose Samson Family Jewish Community Center, National Council of Jewish Women, and Home Instruction Program for Preschool Youngsters (HIPPY). I could never have predicted — when we moved to Milwaukee in the early 1990s, and without knowing anyone — how my volunteering would produce such an invaluable source of strength for our family.

Our strength deepened when we were told that Laura’s liver had saved a woman’s life. We eventually met Trish and have since developed an exceptional relationship with her. The miraculous impact of our family’s decision to donate Laura’s organs gave us purpose, comfort and a newfound sense of stability.

Not quite four years later that stability was again upended, when – following several months of increasingly painful headaches – I was given an eerily-similar and terrifying diagnosis. I had my own brain tumor. Mine was a meningioma, more common, benign and genetically unrelated to Laura’s. Yet, it needed to be removed, and as I recovered from the emergency surgery, the community once again rallied around us.

When friends commented on how well we were managing in spite of these distressing events, I remember feeling bewildered and even a little guilty. We’d suffered two harrowing incidents, yet we were not only doing okay, but better than okay. We’d become increasingly more empathetic, grateful for the blessings we still had in our life; we were determined to live in the moment rather than fearing the future. We refused to sacrifice our daughters’ lives, or ours, to what couldn’t be undone.

My bewilderment at our doing “better than expected” decreased after learning — quite by accident — about the concept of post-traumatic growth. Our family was not alone in surviving — and even thriving — following trauma. The research, in fact, shows that the majority of survivors will experience at least one element of positive emotional growth in the wake of trauma.

Factors such as childhood stability, a positive outlook, sense of spirituality and supportive relationships correlate to a victim’s likelihood of displaying resilience or even bouncing back higher than before.

Survivors, of course, shouldn’t be judged if they don’t experience positive effects on a specific timetable, or even at all. And, the survivor almost always would never have wanted the bad event to have occurred in the first place, regardless of any subsequent growth. PTG is not an either/or phenomenon. Emotional growth and ongoing distress often, in fact, occur simultaneously. For us, no amount of growth could ever make up for losing Laura.

Discovering the prevalence of PTG encouraged me to write a book about my experiences — to dispel the myth that humans are destined to crumble when faced with life’s inevitable adversities. I truly believe that we’re all stronger than we think — especially with friends, family and community by our side.

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Book: ‘Permission to Thrive’

“Permission to Thrive: My Journey from Grief to Growth,” by Susan Angel Miller, traces her journey, including her daughter’s death and organ donation. Proceeds from book sales will be donated to the Laura Miller Memorial Fund at the Jewish Community Foundation of Milwaukee Jewish Federation, according to the family.

Upcoming book events include:

  • Tuesday, Feb. 19, 7 p.m. book signing at Boswell Book Company, 2559 N. Downer Ave., Milwaukee, 414-332-1181, co-sponsored by the Harry & Rose Samson Family Jewish Community Center.
  • Thursday, Feb. 28, 7 p.m. book signing at Congregation Shalom, 7630 N. Santa Monica Blvd, Fox Point, 414-352-9288.

For more information on the family’s organ donation story, please go to “Laura’s Gift of Life” on YouTube.