Wouldn’t it be great if our most difficult days came with Hollywood-happy endings?
In the movies, when faced with the worst possible situations, our heroes rise to the occasion and find the strength they never knew they had. But those who experience real-life traumas are just as likely to end up questioning their faith in God, their family and themselves.
The scars, both physical and emotional, may never completely heal. And it can take years to find “meaning” from it all.
Even those who seem equipped to handle the worst – because of their religious beliefs or strong family and community connections – can find themselves questioning everything.
“There certainly are difficult lessons to learn when your life is suddenly turned upside down,” says Susan Mattern, author of “Out of the Lion’s Den: A Little Girl’s Mountain Lion Attack, A Mother’s Search for Answers”.
In 1986, while Mattern, her husband, and their two children were hiking in Casper’s Wilderness Park in Orange County, California, a mountain lion grabbed her 5-year-old daughter, Laura, and disappeared. By the time she was found and rescued, Laura had been severely mauled. She survived but lost the use of her right hand and the vision in one eye. She had severe brain injuries, and her life hung in the balance for weeks.
Mattern, a former nun, struggled with guilt, anger, stress, and frustration as she fought to help her daughter recover – and to hold the county accountable when she learned the staff knew there were mountain lions in the park but hadn’t warned visitors.
In the decade after the attack, she lost her religious faith but came out of the experience with a new kind of happiness and fulfillment.
Mattern has these tips for those battling to come back after a life-changing trauma:
Have faith in yourself. If you don’t believe in a higher power, or if you lose your religious faith, you can find your own meaning in life. “It was very difficult to give up my beliefs,” she says. “But instead of a vast emptiness where God used to be, there is caring, love and friendship.”
Have more than one focus. Mattern’s primary goal was helping her daughter get well, but the family also spent years battling Orange County in court. “The trial took up so much of our life, and that was a good thing in many ways,” she says. “It gave us another purpose.”
If you can’t find the courage within yourself, look to those you love. Decades after her daughter’s attack, Mattern still is in awe of her friends; her husband, Don; and her daughter’s rescuers, doctors, and legal team. But she draws the most strength from Laura, who isn’t bitter and lives an independent and fulfilling life.
Don’t expect to draw lessons from the experience right away. You may need to wait for the lessons to become apparent. It will take time and painful reflection, but it’s worth it, Mattern says. “It would be so depressing to go through all of this, only to learn nothing and have done nothing.” She realized, after years of searching, that the meaning of life was right in front of her – in her family, and the love she shared with family and friends.
Mattern says that after Laura grew into a young woman they were looking at a book that posed the question: If you could change one day in your life, which day would it be?
Mattern thought the choice was obvious. Laura disagreed.
“That day changed all of us, I know,” she told her mother. “But I wouldn’t have become the person I am today, and we wouldn’t have cared for each other as much as we do, or have such a wonderful family. No, I would leave that day just like it was.”