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Resilience in the Face of Grief

A new term associated with grief came on the scene a few years ago, and I have to be straight-up honest with you and say that I have struggled with this word: Resilience. It just doesn’t quite sit well. Please indulge me here as I work through this ambivalence.

It’s been said that “resilience is the strength and speed of our response to adversity.” It’s suggested that we build resilience before we have to face adversity. Omgoodness. The grieving people that I’ve sat with over the years were not resilient; they were brave.

When grief sneaks up on you or crashes into your life, you’re not prepared. It’s pie in the sky to think that we have reserves of strength and speed at our command at such a time. When my son died, I had no reserves of either. Our family was in the state of “anticipated grief” – my son was terminally ill. He asked me, more than once, “Mom, what will you do?” I always answered, “I don’t know.” And I didn’t. He was worried about me. And he expressed to me how thankful he was that it was him and not one of his brothers who was dying. Imagine. He was the one with strength - resilience. He was in command of his experience.

You might think in such a situation of anticipation, I would be readying myself. I couldn’t. We couldn’t. We were trying to keep him clean and comfortable; we tried to manage the meds and keep him out of pain; we tried to entertain and engage him; we tried to keep him with us; we tried to keep him alive, until we knew it was time to let him go. It took all the strength we had. Our emotional reserve account was empty. Our resilience was nil.

Resilience has its place, however, and it is something that we want to build, since life keeps knocking on our door, and we have one opportunity after another to grow. It’s a work-out, and building those muscles of resilience begins at ground zero. Day one. From then on, it’s a life-long project.

A great tool toward building resilience is gratitude. Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer of Facebook, lost her husband suddenly while they were on vacation in Mexico. She speaks eloquently of this in her books, Lean In and Option B. She suggests that gratitude is a discipline; we have to work at it by giving it some attention. She suggests that you take 3 minutes a day to focus on joy and gratitude. Keep a journal and write down these joys and feelings of gratitude. When you look for the good, it shows up. I totally agree!

The Mayo Clinic staff asks, “When something goes wrong, do you tend to bounce back or fall apart?” Gulp. When it comes to grief, is there really a possible “bounce”? Thankfully, this is not a test, but they do go on to offer some wonderful tips to improve your resilience.

When you have resilience, you harness inner strength that helps you rebound from a setback or challenge, such as a job loss, an illness, a disaster or a loved one's death. If you lack resilience, you might dwell on problems, feel victimized, become overwhelmed or turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms, such as substance abuse.

Resilience won't make your problems go away — but resilience can give you the ability to see past them, find enjoyment in life and better handle stress. If you aren't as resilient as you'd like to be, you can develop skills to become more resilient.

Adapting to adversity

Resilience is the ability to adapt to difficult situations. When stress, adversity or trauma strikes, you still experience anger, grief and pain, but you're able to keep functioning — both physically and psychologically. However, resilience isn't about putting up with something difficult, being stoic or figuring it out on your own. In fact, being able to reach out to others for support is a key part of being resilient.

Resilience and mental health

Resilience can help protect you from various mental health conditions, such as depression and anxiety. Resilience can also help offset factors that increase the risk of mental health conditions, such as being bullied or previous trauma. If you have an existing mental health condition, being resilient can improve your coping ability.

I’m happy to see that a lot of attention is being focused on building resilience in children. Maybe you’ve heard the acronym “ACEs”, which stands for Adverse Childhood Experiences. Please read this from the Center for Child Counseling:

Think about a toddler who is just learning to walk. Picture the number of times that toddler stumbles and tumbles. Researchers at New York University, directed by Dr. Karen Adolph, showed that newly-walking infants travel about 2,360 steps each hour. They also fall down an average of 17 times during that same period. Imagine you failed at something you were trying to achieve 17 times every hour. You’d be experiencing a setback once every 3.5 minutes – very disheartening. But do toddlers stop trying to walk successfully? Never. They get up again and again and keep moving. This is a compelling way to describe resilience. As Oliver Goldsmith, an 18th century Irish poet, put it: “Success is simply standing up one more time than you fall down.”

What makes some people so resilient and what does this have to do with ACEs? As we’ve learned, ACEs are Adverse Childhood Experiences that have a dramatically detrimental effect on a person’s lifelong mental and physical health. The statistics for those with high ACE scores seem bleak. They suffer from more diseases, greater levels of depression, alcoholism, and substance abuse. They die, on average, 20 years younger than those with no ACEs. But there is hope and resilience might be the key.

What is resilience?

Resilience is the ability to bounce back from life’s difficulties. It can be described as a varied and dynamic mix of many traits like determination, toughness, optimism, faith, positivity and hope. Resilience isn’t necessarily something a child is born with, although scientists now believe that certain children are genetically predisposed to higher levels of resilience. But the good news for all children is that resilience is like a muscle - the more you exercise it, the stronger it grows, especially in very young children where neural pathways are still forming and thinking patterns are elastic.

Many adults are dealing with unresolved grief associated with early childhood, and the ACEs quiz can shed a lot of light on this subject. It certainly illuminated me. You can find this questionnaire online and for certain, it is an excellent tool.

Like many or most of you, I’ve had to build resilience. My son was my primary teacher, and my lessons were greatly enhanced through films and books that focused on grief and resilience. I worked with grief through all kinds of hands-on experiences that allowed expression and relief of all that I was carrying, and I was bolstered by loving friends, family and nature. However, it was the groups that I sat with over the years, and the courage that I witnessed across the spectrum of demographics that was most healing. But here’s the key: it all begins with a tiny, humble word that I prefer above all others: willingness.

Maybe resilience isn’t about bouncing back OR falling apart; maybe it’s not about strength or speed. Experience teaches me that resilience is more about empathy, self-care, love, courage, and a gentle compassion and willingness to meet what’s rising within. Perhaps we could approach this simple question: Am I willing to stay the course and do what it takes to build resilience and recover my well-being? I suggest that if you can muster a tiny sob, a whimper or a whisper of “yes”, then you, dear friend, are on your way. And you will, at some point, lovingly pass on all that you’ve learned about resilience from that which called your name: Grief.


Just as I thought I was done investigating resilience, I wasn’t! I tuned into PBS – totally by chance at the perfect time to catch a documentary on an amazing couple who embody every aspect of resilience. What a blessing! I was deeply humbled and moved – to tears – as if we simply had to ring one more bell for that indomitable spirit of the human condition that is impossible to subdue or defeat. I bow deeply. Check out the story of Nick and Lindsay Fener!

And catch the PBS documentary, too:

“A film about loss and resilience that challenged me to reflect on my own struggles

and how I faced them.” Chelsea Butters Wooding, MD

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