329 – Post Traumatic Growth

This Week on Soul Talks

Post-traumatic stress is a frequent topic of discussion in our culture today. Sometimes we may experience trials and are unable to see hope for our future. But there is another, less well-known side of trauma that is accessible to us as we lean in with our Risen Lord — post-traumatic growth.

Tune into this episode of Soul Talks as Kristi interviews Georgia Shaffer —  author, speaker, coach, psychologist, and four-time cancer survivor. Georgia is a wounded healer sharing the beauty of post-traumatic growth that can flourish in the midst of pain and suffering. In and after trials, soul care practices in your discipleship to Jesus can bring you post-traumatic growth too—empowering you to face your fears, embrace your limitations, and experience deeper intimacy with Jesus.

 

Resources for this episode: 

Post Traumatic Growth Transcript

Kristi Gaultiere with Guest Speaker and Author Georgia Shaffer

Kristi

Hi friends!  Thanks for joining us on Soul Talks with Bill and Kristi Gaultiere. 

Today Bill isn’t with us because I wanted to have a Soul Talk with my new friend, Georgia Shaffer. 

Georgia is an author, speaker, psychologist, and coach in Pennsylvania.

Georgia, Bill and I got to come to a workshop that you did at the AACC conference for counselors, pastors, and leaders in Florida this fall. 

We so enjoyed just hearing your story, and you talking to us with hope about post-traumatic growth. 

I listened to you in that workshop, and then we got to come up and just interact with you a little bit. 

I had heard of you for years because of your friendship with my mother, but I was so excited to be with you in person and have my own experience with you.  

I am excited now to be able to have this Soul Talk today and share you with our Soul Shepherding community. 

So thank you for joining us. 

Georgia

Thanks for the opportunity. 

Kristi

It really is a joy and a privilege. 

Even as we were just talking a little bit before we started recording, I’m just so thankful for that bond that we can have in Christ as soul friends, even if it’s a new relationship where we don’t have a lot of time together.

Just knowing that we resonate, that God is working through his Spirit in our lives in some ways that are really congruent and parallel. 

It’s just a joy when you get to journey with others in following Jesus. I’m grateful to do that today. 

I know our listeners are going to be blessed hearing from you. 

I would love it if you would share a little bit of your story—of the trauma part, and then we’ll get to the post-traumatic growth part.

I think that’s so important because we hear a lot in today’s age and culture about post-traumatic stress.

When we’re going into and are experiencing trauma, we get a little nervous like, “Oh no, what’s this post-traumatic stress I’m going to have to deal with?” 

But we don’t hear about the post-traumatic growth.

That’s what Jesus enables us to do. That’s our transformation in Christ-likeness, our formation in Christ—it’s God’s redemptive work. 

One of the things that Bill and I teach in the books, the podcast, our blog, and our Soul Shepherding Institute is not to waste our trials—that actually our trials are a part of our discipleship to Jesus. 

They’re part of our formation and that if we lean into God in those trials, he uses them for good. 

Your story so illustrates that, so I don’t want to keep talking. I want our listeners to hear from you. 

Georgia

Well, my trauma, so to speak, started back over 30 years ago. 

I was in my thirties, and I was diagnosed with cancer, and then it came back six months later and it was extremely aggressive. 

The doctors told me I had a 2% chance to be alive in 10 years. 

My son was only eight going on nine, which meant I had a 2% chance to see him graduate. 

I was told my only hope for long term survival was chemotherapy—the aggressive kind—radiation, and a bone marrow transplant. 

That was the tough thing. 

So I had all those treatments, and when they were over, as my son told me years later, “Mom, you were a ghost and a shell.”

I went from this get-it-done type of woman to somebody who took all her energy just sitting up in a chair—a drastic change.

Then during that same period of time, I lost my job. 

They held it for two years, but I was still extremely weak, so I could no longer return to that. 

I went through a divorce. 

So I had three major losses, which isn’t unusual. A lot of people have multiple losses at the same time.

Kristi

Yes, it’s not unusual, sadly. 

But it’s so overwhelming, and it doesn’t make sense to us.

Georgia

No

During that time, I just felt so helpless. 

When you are at that place of brokenness, you get to see what God can do because you know you had nothing to do with it.

I think the one feeling I remember over and over during that time—as I looked towards a future not knowing if I would live or die—is that I couldn’t see how my life would ever get better. 

I just couldn’t imagine it. I was so weak. Everything was a struggle.

So how could my life get better? I couldn’t imagine it.

Kristi

No. How could you begin to have a vision of anything good coming from this when it was such devastation after devastation—such a painful journey ahead that you were looking at—to have any ability to be able to stay present for your son?

Georgia

Oh yeah. He was a key reason why I “kept on keeping on.”

Kristi

Well, I’m sure thankful for that. 

You are a survivor, and it’s really heroic who you are today. What God has done is such a beautiful story of redemption. 

So, tell us a little bit more. 

What helped you? Where did you find the strength, hope, and power to walk through this valley of the shadow of death?

Georgia

Well, I experienced Jesus in a real way during the bone marrow transplant. 

When I was at death’s door, I just had that image we often hear about—footprints in the sand— where he was carrying me. 

I remember in that image, just saying, “Put me down, there’s people far more important than me.”

He seemed to be saying, “Georgia, you’re important too.”

Kristi

Yes. 

Georgia

I went to church as a little girl, but we were not taught about our relationship with God. 

It was a year later when somebody asked me, as I was telling the story I just told you, “Tell us about your daily relationship with the Lord.”

That’s when I realized I didn’t have one. You know, somebody I called on and prayed to when things were rough.  

That’s what really started the journey of that partnership, helping me keep on keeping on.  

It was a difference of night and day. 

Not that I still wasn’t confused and disoriented, and some days it would’ve been easier to die than to live.

Kristi

Well, you discovered an invitation to intimacy with God in the midst of this suffering—this crisis—and you responded.

Georgia

Yeah. It was all the difference. 

It was a peace I don’t think I’ve ever experienced since then. It was palpable.

Kristi

I love that, because even in the midst of the suffering there was a grace for you in your story and in your life that you could see—somehow God was willing good for you. 

He knew that this is what it was going to take for you to be able to really get serious about your relationship with him and get to know him intimately. 

I’m so thankful that you shared that, and so thankful for that experience. 

Then I imagine that you held onto that experience—revisited that experience in your mind—and  remembered that over and over.

Georgia

Absolutely. That was critical. 

It wasn’t the end of the cancer. The breast cancer never returned, but then seven years ago I was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer. 

With that, the disorientation was more present than anything. 

I knew God, I wasn’t giving up, but it was a dark night of the soul in many ways.

You know, I just couldn’t understand what he was doing. 

Then I had three years of chemo, and then I was hoping that was done. 

But then last year I was diagnosed with stage three colon cancer and had more chemo, which I’ve now finished. 

I pray I don’t have to deal with it again.

Kristi

Yes. Wow. That’s so difficult—such a painful journey. 

Yet, you don’t wear that. You wear the presence and peace of Jesus, the joy and the hope of the Lord.

You are a wounded healer. You are a living testimony here in your life. 

Thank you for that, because there are so many of us who are so desperate for that hope, who need to know that these kinds of traumas, trials, difficulties, and sufferings don’t leave us with posttraumatic stress disorder—they don’t have to.

Actually, we can revisit things like this experience that God gave you in the bone marrow transplant, instead of just revisiting the trauma of all the treatment and the experience.

Will you share a little bit more with our listeners—what has helped you to lean into your trial, to grow through your trial? 

What are some other ways that God has met you in your journey and you have seen him work beauty out of the devastation—and then even in it?

Georgia

Yeah. My friends were really important. 

When I had all these losses—the loss of my health, job, and marriage—we had a devastating drought. 

I live in south central Pennsylvania, and my green lawn looked like shredded wheat. It was all dry, it just looked terrible. 

I thought,”Okay, I’ll wait a year. The spring rains will come. My lawn, which it had done in the past, will shoot back up.”

But spring came, the rains came, and I still had shredded weight for a lawn.

I can tell you, I was really angry with God. 

You know, you always hear the same—when it rains, it pours. But it was like, “Oh, you’re kidding!”  

I got estimates to reseed and it was thousands of dollars. At that point I was a single mom not working. So that was out of the question.

I just sat on my back steps and looked at that lawn and kept praying. 

I just felt God was saying at one point, “Put in a garden and pond.” 

I thought, “That’s not God, that is so frivolous at a time when money’s tight.” 

But it was that gentle nudge “Put in a garden and pond.” 

So one day I said to one of my friends, “You know, the lawn doesn’t want to grow. I should get somebody that cultivates it ready to till it and plant a garden.” 

And she said, “Oh, I’ll help. We’ll get a bunch of friends who’ll get plants.” 

So one unemployed neighbor dug the hole for the pond. We had the rocks in the hedgerow behind my house. A lot of the plants in my garden are just ordinary. Iris, peonies—nothing exquisite or really special.

But as I watched that garden grow—each year it becomes more established, and more beautiful—it was like God saying, “Here’s what I can do with the devastation in your life. I can make something beautiful out of it.” 

The name of my garden is Mourning Glory Gardens— M-O-U-R-N-I-N-G

To signify, how with God, we can go from those feelings of hopelessness and despair to those of hope and joy. 

So in the garden—even to this day when I get down—that’s where I really connect with God in his creation. 

Especially in my garden, just watching the things grow.  He continues to teach that song “He walks with me and talks with me.” That’s really important to me.

Kristi

Well, I love that. 

I know so often we need beauty in our life to be able to help us connect with God. 

Our mentor Dallas Willard said beauty is God’s glory made manifest. That’s part of what you were seeing happening there. 

You were working with God in that to transform this ugly, dead lawn into this beautiful, live garden. 

Then you wrote about this. The name of one of your many books is 

A Gift of Mourning Glories: Restoring Your Life After Loss

You share this story and some of the steps that the Lord led you to in that restoration work. 

One of the things that you did was let yourself do that work of mourning. 

You have been so generous to share with our listeners a free PDF that you’ve put together of the distinction—the difference—between grieving and self pity.

Sometimes people will avoid doing the grief work because they’re afraid they’re just going to be in self pity. 

Or maybe they’ve been treated with contempt when they’ve been doing some mourning work by somebody who has seen it as self pity, and hasn’t understood a healthy mourning—a healthy lament.

And so I appreciate you offering that to our listeners—that’ll be in the show notes.

Can you talk a little bit more about some of your soul care practices, because that’s something that we really highly value here in the Soul Shepherding community. 

Soul care practices that can actually be a part of leading towards a post-traumatic growth in our life.

Georgia

You mentioned that many people try to avoid grieving, and I totally understand why, because these are intense emotions during the time of grief.

I thought the sadness was going to kill me. 

It was so deep and crippling and I thought my anger was going to hurt somebody else. 

So what do you do during that time? Well, again, I journaled a lot.

Some days my journal was a trash can where I just got rid of all those feelings. 

Or I wrote my prayers to God and what I felt he was communicating to me. So journaling was a key thing in my life. 

The other thing that was very helpful was meeting every two weeks with a spiritual friend.  

We pray for one another. We help each other pay attention to God’s hand in our life. That was extremely important. 

As I already said, just going out in God’s creation took me out of my pain and all that I was dealing with. 

His beauty, in so many ways, was key for me.

Kristi

Yeah. So important. 

Thank you for noting the importance of how we need these different practices to help us. 

They’re handrails, in a sense for us, as we’re going through and we can barely take that next step. We’re just trying to cope because we’re so overwhelmed and our emotions can be so overwhelming. 

Like you said, the anger. Many people feel like in suffering, they shouldn’t be angry. They feel shame for having these emotions. 

Can you talk a little bit to that? Some of our listeners may be feeling that even now.

Georgia

Oh yeah, you’re right. 

People have a lot of guilt or shame and they don’t know how to express their anger in constructive ways. 

We think of anger as physical or verbal abuse, but sometimes we can withhold and give somebody the silent treatment, which is not a healthy way.

So what do you do with that anger that can be constructive?

There’s a lot of different ways. 

Gardening—as I got stronger—I would go out there and dig the dirt and yell at the weeds. That was a way.

Some people like to clean their house, go work out, or go for a bike ride. 

What is really important is that we can easily—during this period of time—get stuck in the muck. 

So I had to purposely do things some days. I didn’t feel like it, but I had to purposely do something that would give me a sense of hope. 

It wasn’t a wonderful joy feeling. I would come back into the pain.

But just getting that reprieve, something to renew my spirit, to bring me a sense of hope was critical.

Kristi

Which is part of why we call the disciplines, “spiritual disciplines”, because we do sometimes have to discipline ourselves to engage. 

As our mentor Dallas Willard says, “To do what we can do in order to enable us to do what we can’t do by direct effort.”

That’s where we do what we can do, and God meets us there in that. And that’s your story.

Georgia

Yeah. And of course reading scripture, there would be key verses I would write in my journal so I would especially remember and wouldn’t forget what he was telling me—that was critical. 

Kristi

Yes. You must have related to Job with so much suffering—with the multiple, with the triple blows there all at once. 

I would imagine that you found a camaraderie there in Job’s experience.

Georgia

Yeah. Absolutely. 

People don’t always want to recognize suffering is real— like Job suffered.

So often in our culture, we think, “Well, I’ll go to a doctor or I’ll try this and my suffering will end.” 

But in the midst of that pain, there isn’t always a pain killer. So it was recognizing suffering is real. 

Recognizing, even in the midst of that, I still had things to be grateful for and to just keep walking and leaning on God.  

Because I can tell you, nobody’s more aware than me of how he got me through that difficult time. 

Kristi

Yeah. And then the aloneness and having to deal with the abandonment of your divorce.

Georgia

Yeah.

Kristi

That’s big, especially in a time when you were in great need. 

It sounds like part of your story, though, was reaching out to others and not trying to do it alone.

It must have been somewhat humbling for you to have to learn to receive and depend upon others.

Georgia

Yes. And I had a lot of wonderful friends. Friends who didn’t feel the need to fix me and say, “You know what? You need to do,…”. 

Friends who came alongside me, who believed in my ability to grow, even when I didn’t think I’d make it out the other side. They were so encouraging. 

Whether they brought flowers, brought a meal, talked to me on the phone, or just laughed together. That was critical to help me move through the difficult times.

Kristi

Having safe people—people that could be with you that wouldn’t shrink away because of suffering and the pain. 

People that could help you put your hope in God.

People that could minister his presence to you.

Georgia

To pray with me.

Kristi

Yes. So good. So important.

I really want our listeners to hear this. 

Oftentimes when we are in a dark valley, when we’re at the wall, as Bill and I wrote about in our book, Journey of the Soul, or in a dark night, like you mentioned, Georgia, we feel fear. 

We feel fear that it’s never going to get better, that we can’t get through this, or that it’s going to scar us in a way that’s going to be devastating. 

I love your story because it shows what research now shows us—about 60% of people that experience trauma, afterwards come through with post-traumatic growth.

I think that’s such an important thing. Now that statistic might be low, it’s an older statistic. 

But I think part of what your message is here is that we can play a part in whether we come out of trauma with post-traumatic stress or growth.

We probably will have stress too, but even how we deal with that, and what we do with that can be turned into growth.

Georgia

Oh yeah, absolutely. 

That whole experience of suffering is really an opportunity to grow in disguise. 

It just provides all of the conditions that you need to grow. 

One of the things I had to learn—for that resilience to bounce back, that post-traumatic growth— is that there were so many things I could not do and I wanted to be strong. 

I didn’t want to be weak. I wanted to be tough. 

I had to learn to live with my limitations and that wasn’t easy.

Ruth Hailey Barton talks about trying to sidestep our limitations, but yet in the middle of that, when we accept them, we’re where God wants us to be. 

I had to learn to accept my limitations, embrace where I was, and just savor the moment. 

One of the things I realized early on, as I was going through this, is that we weren’t teaching people how to rebuild.

Yes, you grieve, but you still haven’t rebuilt your life. 

So what does that look like? 

I became really passionate about that.  

It was that sense of meaning, purpose, paying attention to what God was doing in my life, and what that journey looked like, that gave me real strength to go out and help others.

We can’t discount that because in the midst of uncertainty, it was that knowing and doing, using the experiences, the gifts and the talents that God has given me to help others, that is so life-giving and energizing.

That can help build that momentum to begin again.

Kristi

Well, you’ve done that beautifully in your story.

Of course often cancer becomes a microphone, and people will listen to you because they know you know suffering and they know you know fear. 

They know you know the emotions that they, maybe secretly, are feeling and you have leaned into that and you have stewarded and used that well as an author, as a speaker, as a coach, and as a psychologist. 

So thank you for that. And thank you for doing that today for us on Soul Talks. I so appreciate it. 

As we wrap up our time together here on Soul Talk, would you say a prayer for our listeners who are maybe getting in touch with some of the emotions they’re having, and some of the difficulties they’re experiencing? 

Maybe an invitation to do some post-traumatic healing work with the Lord.

Georgia

Oh yes. I pray for those listening, Father. 

There’s some out there with these emotions that are so frightening and they just want to numb them in a million different ways, whether it be busyness, or eating for comfort, or watching Netflix.

But Father give them the courage to face that pain because that pain is the very thing that will help them grow and become stronger. 

And not only when they face that pain—that they’ll experience a whole new dimension of joy that they never experienced before. 

Fear is really a part of the journey. And we can’t wait for the fear to go away.

I found when I was around courageous people, that was contagious.

May the listeners find somebody who can speak into their lives, who believes in their ability to not only go through this difficult experience, but to grow through it. 

Father, I would just pray that you would plant in their hearts how you can use this situation to serve others. 

So that whether they share their story, their hope in Christ, or their life experiences, may they reach out one day and use this experience for the good of others. 

I pray this in Jesus’ mighty name. Amen.

Kristi

Amen. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

Georgia

Oh, thank you! I really appreciated having this experience and the opportunity to share.

Kristi

Good.  Well, it’s just a real joy for me to get to have this conversation with you, Georgia, and get to share it with our community.

I’m so thankful for you, for your life.  You are an inspiration, you are a wounded healer. You have responded as 2 Corinthians says—the comfort you have received you are now using to comfort others.

So thank you for that.  You are a hero to me because of the way you have persevered, which is so huge in spiritual warfare. 

Georgia

Yeah, the battle is real but we don’t have to fight it alone.

Kristi

Amen!

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