There is an old saying – a cliché even – that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. And this seems to be true when it comes to those who have survived tragedies.

From the parents who lost their child in a horrifying horse accident, to the young man whose brother committed suicide, to the middle-aged woman who was held-up and raped at knifepoint, there can be strength in adversity.

Susan was in her early 30s when she was held up by a knife-wielding man in a balaclava at her local railway station, then bound, gagged and raped in her car. It was a truly horrifying experience, but she says that the actual incident seemed surreal at the time. Normality in the weeks after the attack was harder to adjust to.

Now 54, she says that the attack ended up framing who she became and what she achieved afterwards.

“In some ways it helped to give me perspective,” she says. “I was working in a fairly superficial industry and people spent a lot of time gossiping about each other. After the attack it just seemed pointless. I had faced death and survived! Those petty grievances seemed so silly. I decided I wanted to make a difference with my life and I started doing lots of volunteer work. I was a voluntary counsellor for about 15 years afterwards.”

Susan says that one person she met through her recovery process told her that most “great” people in history had encountered a life-threatening experience in their formative years – from Winston Churchill to Nelson Mandela, to Kerry Packer and Marie Curie – even Agatha Christie. This resonated with her.

“This man had survived a horrific ocean storm on his yacht and almost drowned,” she says. “He said that surviving almost certain death changed him and made him feel like an outsider; and a little different to everyone else. It made him realise that life was short and he was stronger than he thought.

“I decided then that I needed to be strong, to rise above my experience and to grow as a person. I didn’t want the person who attacked me to win.”

Juliana Waugh was in her 40s when her daughter Sarah was tragically killed by fall from a horse while on a TAFE course in the NSW countryside. Understandably devastated by Sarah’s death, she and her husband Mark spent the next seven years fighting to change the laws around horses and inexperienced riders, a battle they eventually won.

NSW now has a new Code of Practice to reduce work-related horse injuries, which came into effect on the February 1 2017.
Called the “Code of Practice for managing Risks when new or inexperienced riders or handlers interact with horses in the Workplace”, it is the first of its kind in Australia.

“I knew I could never save Sarah but I truly believed that if I didn't fight on and do something – bring change that would be lasting – I was not a good mother because now I knew what was wrong I felt it was up to me,” says Juliana. “I was compelled so no other child would die like Sarah did.”

Marshall Dunn’s brother Mitchell committed suicide in 2002 at the age of 26, a month before his own 21st birthday. The next few years were difficult and unbearably sad, but ultimately a period of growth and insight.

Now a life coach and author, Marshall wrote a book about the process of coming to terms with Mitchell’s death, published in the form of the letters he wrote to his dead brother while he was grieving. Called Letters to Mitch it takes readers through Marshall’s journey after his brother’s suicide and his path to healing.

As he says in the introduction of the book, he now feels that Mitch “gave me the opportunity of a lifetime – the opportunity to know myself, something I might not have done if he hadn’t passed. These days, it gives me great pleasure to write, coach, speak, and connect with people from all over the world as I help them peel back the layers of their own suffering.”

Marshall says that he hopes that sharing his story will help others to cope with “whatever curveball that life has thrown at you”. He is now completing his second book and has plans for a “self-help” novel.

“There is an invitation there to question your place in the world and the gifts you have and how you want to live your life,” he says.

“When you have an event like that that brings you to your knees, questions are going to come up and it is really going to be up to the individual and the choice they make. Whether they want to keep going down the path that that may not be serving the highest values and priorities or if they want to muster their courage and go in the direction that and investigate their inner landscape and start to heal areas of their life that need attention.”

Need help? Call Lifeline Australia on 13 11 14 or visit Compassionate Friends.

How have you coped with grief and adversity? Share your story in the comments section below.

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