I am familiar with the devastation of loss–how life, as you know it, can be totally shattered and leave you feeling in a fog and completely lost. The first year after the death of someone close to you is a time filled with huge waves of intense, overwhelming emotions. It is a busy year too– a time of legal and other tasks, learning to adjust to a new reality and learning new skills. It is a year filled with difficult firsts—the first Thanksgiving, the first birthday, the first anniversary—and finding a new normal. As difficult as it is, this first year is often softened by caring people in your life and/or support groups. It is with the help of this support that you discover you can survive the loss of this important person.
People think—“If I get through the first year, things will be better, I’ll be okay”. They often are surprised and frightened when they do not feel much better, when they are not their “old selves” again, and when the second year after loss– although different– is just as tough, or even tougher, as the first year. A reason for this is that mourning is not a quick process. Another reason is that once you have discovered you can survive, you are able to see past your pain enough that you know you have to keep surviving for another year, and another, and another…..and that, maybe, “surviving” is not enough. You need to figure out how to heal from you loss—that is, mend your heart and recreate yourself and your life.
Every griever I met knows that “healing” does not mean that your heart will be exactly like new—there will always be a wound there because of the loss. You will never be the same again. But healing does mean that you can one day feel whole again and create a life that brings you joy, meaning, and love again. Christina Rasmussen, a young widow who wrote the book Second Firsts, describes healing as “the ability to re-enter life with a broken heart, while it is still mending”. The healing process is what psychologists call resilience.
A lot of people think you’re either resilient or you’re not. I’d like to introduce to you the concept of resilience as a skill we can cultivate. Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook, lost her husband suddenly in May 2015 and speaks to this debate eloquently in her University of California Commencement speech (2016): “You are not born with a fixed amount of resilience. Like a muscle, you can build it up, draw on it when you need it. In that process you will figure out who you really are—and you just might become the very best version of yourself.”
Elizabeth Edwards, the wife of Senator Edwards, who faced cancer and a marriage breakup, wrote: “Resilience is accepting your new reality, even if it’s less good than the one you had before. You can fight it, you can do nothing but scream about what you’ve lost, or you can accept that and try to put together something that’s good.”
Both women take the attitude that healing and resilience is an active process. If we break an arm and do nothing, it will not mend properly, no matter how long we wait. We need to take deliberate action to ensure that it will mend properly. Likewise, healing after bereavement takes time but also is an active process.
So, how do we cultivate resilience? To answer this question, let’s look at what people who demonstrate resilience do and learn from them.
1) Resilient people start with reality, accept it, and build on it. That means they accept what has happened in their life—even if they don’t like it. They use it as a starting point. They see themselves as survivors, not victims. They are optimistic and proactive. They know that their pain, their crushing grief, will not last forever and they tell themselves: “I can get through this.” Casey Pieretti was a college basketball player whose career came to an abrupt stop when he was struck by a drunk driver and lost his leg. He decided very soon after his accident that he was going to work hard at rehabilitation with the goal of running a triathlon within a year. People thought he was delusional. Well, he didn’t run the triathlon in a year. But he did learn inline skating, turned it into a career and became a movie stunt person!
After the devastating loss of someone important, accepting the reality of your loss is an important first step. But you also have to build a new life. Christina Rasmussen talks about the importance of this duality of focus in grief so beautifully. In Second Firsts, she wrote, “…we must invite life and grief to walk hand in hand”. Accept your new reality, set your intention to heal, take stock of both your inner and outer resources, and think forward. When you think of your future, allow yourself to dream. Think about what might bring you some joy—old things forgotten, or new things you’d like to try. Be flexible and when something doesn’t work for you, make adjustments until it does work for you.
2) Resilient people interpret things that happen to them in a non-blaming way. Resilient people do not believe that everything that happens to them is because of something they did or didn’t do. They may have regrets—we all do—but they do not blame themselves or plague themselves with “Should have…Could have dones”. Sometimes, bad things happen to good people. Accepting this, having regrets and not turning these regrets into guilt helps make us stronger and more open to healing and growth.
3) Resilient people choose a balanced view. They focus on both the positive and the negative. Although being resilient does not mean that you never experience hard days, it does mean that you choose to experience positive emotions along with the negative ones.
Making a deliberate choice to focus on the positive is hard because human beings are hardwired to focus more on the negative than the positive. For example, if 5 good things and 1 bad thing happen on a particular day—what we usually obsess and talk about at the end of the day is the one bad thing. But we can learn to focus more on the positives.
Rick Hanson is a neuropsychologist who wrote a book called Hardwiring Happiness. He suggests that we can deliberately increase feelings of happiness by focusing on “taking in the good”. To take in the good, we need to first proactively make positive experiences an inherent part of our memory. Then we need to “sit” in these positive experiences and absorb them. Finally, we need to link positives and negatives together.
4) Resilient people keep perspective. They do not believe that something will negatively affect all areas of their life. In other words, they look at the big picture and don’t just focus on one thing. When parents who have lost a spouse or child come to me and ask me how they can help their children, I always say “get kids back to their routine as quickly as possible.” I believe that this is often good advice for adults too. The timing of getting back into your routine of work and activities, or developing a new one, is different for each person. At first, people’s experience is one of “what am I doing here and why does this matter?” But slowly, activities and work can become welcome distractions and sources of accomplishment and new confidence. They can help you see the big picture and bring awareness that there are areas in your life that are still going well.
5) Resilient people are willing to be helped by others and actively reach out to others. A big part of being resilient grows from the support we get from other people in our lives. During times when we may not feel hopeful about our futures, friends, family and support groups can be a source of finding new hope. Surround yourself with people who are positive, who offer encouragement, who embrace the “new” you—whether they are old friends or new ones. And when times seem really dark and you feel stuck, do not be afraid or hesitate to seek professional help to give you that boost you need in moving forward.
“Our job is not to deny our story, but to defy the ending—to rise strong, recognize our story, and rumble with the truth until we get to a place where we think, Yes. This is what happened. This is my truth. And I will choose how this story ends.” Brene Brown, in Rising Strong