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Author is drawn to those who suffer and survive


When Ann Kaiser Stearns sits at her desk each morning, the view through the expansive window before her is the very picture of serenity.

First there is the shade of towering pines, then the seventh green of the Maryland County Club in Towson.

The tranquillity is fitting. Dr. Stearns is a writer and psychologist who, since childhood, says she was drawn to people who had faced great personal pain and loss in their lives and grown through it to reclaim a sense of purpose -- and peace. She writes not so much about loss, but healing.

"I like to talk and write about what I call the triumphant survivor," says Dr. Stearns. "This is the person who just doesn't recover from a personal crisis, but allows the crisis experience to make them wiser and actually transform their lives. They actually transcend the pain."

Tonight, the acclaimed author will lecture at the Wilde Lake Interfaith Center in Columbia. She will focus on common things triumphant survivors do to weather personal loss and suffering and emerge with new strength, depth and appreciation of life.

The 7:30 p.m. lecture is sponsored by the Family Life Center in Columbia, a private nonprofit organization that provides mental health counseling services.

Her lecture will draw from her two published books, "Coming Back: Rebuilding Lives After Crisis and Loss," and "Living Through Personal Crisis." The books have sold more than 1 million copies and have been published in several European languages. "Coming Back" is scheduled to be published in Chinese. A third book focusing on the emotional trauma of job loss is due in 1994.

Rather than write books that offered a psychologist's advice to the weary and beaten, Dr. Stearns decided to make her works heavily anecdotal -- or as the author says, filled with "stories."

Most of the stories are drawn from the legions of people she either worked with as a counselor or interviewed for the books. The underlying theme is that people can and do survive the agony of loss, be it the murder of a child, the sudden death of a spouse, or a crippling accident.

And through grieving and drawing upon inner strengths, people transcend the pain and find goodness and a measure of serenity.

"I like using stories to talk about personal loss and tragedy because a story sticks with people," says Dr. Stearns. "If I tell someone the story of a young woman who was attacked and stabbed in the face, they'll remember it. It's vivid. And if you tell the listener or reader that on the way to the hospital she began to envision having plastic surgery and moving past what had happened to her, that will stay with them too.

"One of the main things I try to emphasize to people through the stories is the concept of refusing to be a victim. You don't have to make a career of your pain," says Dr. Stearns.

One of the central ways to overcome that trap is for sufferers to envision a future in which they are no longer in pain and are living lives they want, says Dr. Stearns, who teaches at Essex Community College and lectures nationally.

"When you are really hurting, you have times when you suddenly can feel strong and refreshed. It's in these moments of greater strength that I tell people they should look to the future," Dr. Stearns says.

That isn't to say that one should deny pain and loss or expect that recovery will happen quickly, without grief, confusion and agony, says Dr. Stearns.

"This is not a Norman Vincent Peale-smooth-and-easy road," she says. "You have no idea how many people I meet who tell me they are relieved to hear someone say that recovery takes a long time. They are made to feel there's something wrong with them if they aren't bouncing back right away. The truth is it can take years to recover from a significant loss."

Dr. Stearns draws her wisdom and advice for her lectures and books not only from others but from the emotional pain caused by the break-up of her marriage more than 20 years ago. She is now the adoptive mother of two daughters, both born in India.

"What I've found over the years is that the human spirit is unbelievably strong in its regenerative powers and that we are capable of such kindness toward each other. I don't focus on sadness; my focus is the sense of respect and awe I have for what it is to be human."

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