I learned how powerful one individual can become following the murder of my 6 year old son, Jesse McCord Lewis, at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012. That might sound like an oxymoronic statement, however, there is a scientific term for exponential personal growth following tragedy. It’s called Post Traumatic Growth. PTG happens when an individual overcomes the negative experience and acquires a greater appreciation of life and relationships, new possibilities, deepens their spirituality and finds meaning in their suffering. We all have this capacity.
However our brains have a negative bias that is woven into our DNA. We unconsciously focus on the negative every day: in our thoughts, decision making, relationships, and especially after traumatic loss. This ancient predisposition is there to keep us safe but it can lead us to concentrating on what’s wrong, rather than moving towards acceptance and even gratitude. It’s the reason everyone knows about the negative effects of trauma, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, yet most have never even heard of PTG, or the many benefits.
We can grow in life through roadblocks, mistakes, and discomfort. I remember standing at my mother’s sink the day after the tragedy, watching the birds eat from the bird feeder in the backyard. This was a poignant scene as Jesse and his grandmother had watched the same landscape from this spot, many times. Bright red flashed and there was a flurry of activity as a cardinal landed on the feeder, shooing the others away. I am going to be strengthened by this, I determined. I am going to find joy with my son, I am going to have a good life. I am going to use this to help others!
I founded the Jesse Lewis Choose Love Movement within months of Jesse’s death and have positively impacted millions of children and adults throughout the US and around the world by offering essential life skills lessons at no cost. This would have saved my son’s life, as well as the life of the perpetrator, and can reduce and prevent so much of the suffering that leads to the violence and dysfunction we are experiencing in schools that translates into our society.
My faith and knowing that I will be reunited with Jesse one day gave me the foundation for my resolve. The morning after the tragedy I woke up before the sun and opened my laptop to write his obituary. I reached beside the bed to turn on the lamp and it flickered three times. I took it as a message from Jesse that he was safe, and with me still.
I also practiced being present. As a single mom with two young boys, we did not own a TV. Instead we played board games and read with each other every night. I worked full days and made it a point to be mindful of family time and play. This practice helped me, even while processing the actual chaotic event, to understand that every response, every word that came out of my mouth, as well as action, would shape the way my older son handled difficulty going forward. In consciously being a role model for him, I empowered myself. Being present with my family also enabled me to move forward with the fewest regrets.
We learn so much through loss. We realize our beloved are gifts that can be taken from us. It teaches us the importance of being present while we have them. It teaches us to prioritize micro-moments of joy that occur multiple times a day, even in our darkest times. We experience the power of compassion as others rise to the occasion to support us. Through acceptance we come to be grateful for the memories, which leads us to grace. Through loss we gain a heightened awareness of the all encompassing power of love.
This New Year I encourage you to make a few simple resolutions that will enable you to live your best life. The first is to be present with the ones you love. This means sitting with them, looking into their eyes and actively listening and sharing. The second is to take a moment to recognize how you’ve grown from your past and choose to use the experience, rather than be victimized by it. The third is to be mindfully aware that your every action is modeling for others how to choose to respond in their own lives. The effects of this ripple out endlessly. All of the ‘nurturing healing love’ that you give out, comes back to you. This also happens to be the exact message my first grader wrote on our kitchen chalkboard days before his murder and it translates into a powerful formula for choosing love.
We can’t always choose what happens to us, but we can always choose how we respond. When we find the courage to respond thoughtfully with love, such as kindness, caring and compassion, to any situation, circumstance or interaction, we empower ourselves and make the world a better place.