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  • Writer's picturePatti Callahan Henry

Who Do We Become After Tragedy? Author Patti Callahan Reflects on Surviving the Surviving


SEPTEMBER 22, 2021

Welcome to our weekly essay series in partnership with Friends & Fiction, an online community hosted by bestselling authors Mary Kay Andrews, Kristin Harmel, Kristy Woodson Harvey, Patti Callahan Henry and Mary Alice Monroe.

Every Wednesday, you’ll get a new life lessons essay from one of the writers, as well as the chance to discuss the themes of it later that night on Facebook Live! Today, author Patti Callahan reflects on who we become after hard times. Be sure to check back each week for a new essay right here on

I was busy. I had things to do. I needed him to tell me everything was OK so I could get on with my life. I expected a simple response. Just another fibrous mass. Nothing to worry about. But what we expect and what we get are rarely the same things.

“It’s cancer,” he said. I nodded, resolute, and said, “But not the real kind, right?” It was an absurd thing to say, of course. There is no such thing as a “not real” cancer. But I didn’t expect this news at all. This news was for other people.

Those words—It’s cancer—began a long and arduous two-year journey of surgeries, chemo, second opinions, panic and reassessing everything in my life from relationships to health to lifestyle to work. I am now eight years out and I can say with assurance (as much assurance as one can muster), “I survived that.

And yet, we know that surviving is not that simple. We don’t just get through something and move on as if it never happened. We can try, but as author Bessel van der Kolk, M.D., tells us in the book The Body Keeps the Score, “We have learned that trauma is not just an event that took place sometime in the past; it is also the imprint left by that experience on mind, brain, and body.” Trauma, van der Kolk says, “changes how we think and what we think about.”

In my novel, Surviving Savannah, based on a true 1838 story, a luxury steamship explodes off the coast of North Carolina. I narrated the story from the point of view of two women of the past, two women who wanted to get to shore, to survive the shipwreck with and for the people they loved. They fought through hell and high water (literally) to live.

When I was going through treatment for breast cancer, fighting language was often used in good measure and with great intentions. “You’ll beat this,” people would say, or, “You’re a fighter.” But that language didn’t resonate with me; I’ve never been athletic or a competitor or a fighter, and sometimes, I’d rather the other person win so they don’t feel badly, which means that battle language didn’t work for me.

I needed to find my own language, and I did. My language consisted of only one word: heal. That was the one word I said over and over and over. Heal. Heal. Heal. But I also assumed that when the treatment was over, the trauma was over.

It wasn’t.

Still, even now, there are little left-over terrors that visit uninvited and at the worst times.

When the women in Surviving Savannah finally did make it to shore, finally did survive the worst of the shipwreck, they too discovered that the tragedy wasn’t ever fully over. The disaster echoed in their lives and in their choices for the rest of their days. Soon, they (and I) realized it wasn’t just about surviving, it was also about surviving the surviving.

And my personal story changed when I realized that, as far as I had come through treatment, there was more to surviving than just getting to shore.

As a society, we’ve been soaked in this idea that once the tragedy, or the illness, or the broken relationship, or the loss, or the pandemic is over, it’s over. Move on, they tell us. Let go, they tell us. Sure, but how?

The truth is that often, after the public tragedy, much of our private and personal journey begins. We have to give the grief or the loss it’s due. After we’ve “survived,” we might need to become accustomed to a new way of living, knowing now that at any minute, life can be turned upside down, our calendars can be wiped clean and the very things we used to define ourselves erased from the whiteboard.

All of the women in Surviving Savannah make different choices after the wreck than they would have before the explosion that tore the ship apart in the middle of the night in the middle of the sea. Not one of them ever sees her life in the same way.

What if we don’t want to merely paint a silver lining around our own tragedy and “get on with things?” Instead, maybe we want to find meaning and purpose. What if we want to feel the grief and feel it in our core? What if instead of pulling ourselves up by the bootstraps (who has bootstraps, anyway?), we learn to ask ourselves bigger questions—ones we didn’t ask when everything was going our way.

For me, making meaning of things I don’t understand means I turn to writing stories and reading stories. It’s there that I can ask myself, “What does this really mean?” This very truth about how trauma changes us is what I was interested in when I wrote Surviving Savannah. I wanted to know: how do they survive the surviving? Who do they choose to become after tragedy? Because it’s possible that in a story the answers for the characters might just be the answers we need in our very real lives.

At the beginning of the pandemic, we all said, “I can’t wait for everything to go back to normal.” Now we know: there is no going back to normal. There never really was.

I don’t have all the answers. I never have, but I do want to ask the questions that survival might bring to us: Who do we become now? Who do we become after we’ve survived? Because it sure isn’t exactly who we were before.

Finding meaning and purpose in our life means something different to each of us. I can’t define it for you and you can’t define it for me. And yet, possibly, we can define it together—living life and engaging with our communities and with each other, as we survive the surviving.

Friends & Fiction is an online community, weekly live web show, and podcast founded and hosted by bestselling authors Mary Kay Andrews, Kristin Harmel, Kristy Woodson Harvey, Patti Callahan Henry, and Mary Alice Monroe, who have written more than 90 novels between them and are published in more than 30 languages. Catch them and their incredible author guests live every Wednesday at 7pm ET on the Friends & Fiction Facebook group page or their YouTube Channel. Follow them on Instagram and, for weekly updates, subscribe to their newsletter.

Patti Callahan Henry is the New York Times bestselling, USA Today bestselling, and Globe and Mail bestselling novelist of 15 novels, including Becoming Mrs. Lewis and Surviving Savannah out now and Once Upon a Wardrobe, out October 19th, 2021. A recipient of the Harper Lee Distinguished Writer of the Year, the Christy Book of the Year and the Alabama Library Association Book of the Year, Patti is the co-founder and co-host of the popular web series and podcast Friends & Fiction. Follow her on Instagram, Facebook and on her website

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15. Dez. 2022

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