As a child, I believed that if nothing bad could ever happen to me, I would be a well-adjusted human being. Odd idea, I know. So, where exactly did I learn that? I am not 100% sure, but I do remember many TV shows and movies where all of the “problem” characters had drama-filled pasts. So, naturally, I tried really hard to avoid bad things from happening to me. I would be extra careful when playing. I identified any and all “stranger danger.” I worried incessantly and remained cautious, convinced that otherwise my future would be doomed. Yet, what I did not know as a child was that without some adversity, there would be no way I could learn how to manage it. Did my cautious ways prevent bad things from happening? Of course not. Did things happen for which no experience could even have prepared me? Absolutely. So, if you don’t want to live in a bubble and also don’t want to throw yourself into tragedy after tragedy, how can you safely learn to deal with life and especially grief? Well, a powerful tool is building your resilience.
“Ok, so what is this “resilience” of which you speak?”
According to the American Psychological Association, resilience is “the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress.” It is being able to bounce back from challenging situations, adapting and responding in healthy ways. There has been quite a lot of discussion lately about resilience, especially in light of the recent release of Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Option B. However, when you have gone through traumatic and life threatening situations, bouncing back to normal is really not an option. Normal is gone. So there is concern that society may be adding yet another expectation onto to those in grief. Now, they just need to be more resilient.
“But, I am struggling to survive over here…”
In the first days and months of grief, your focus is on how to keep breathing as you stumble from one moment to the next. The idea of trying to be more “resilient” is the furthest thing from your mind. Luckily, though, the very things that you are doing to adjust to this gut-wrenching pain of loss actually bolster resilience! For example, trying to get enough rest, drinking plenty of water, taking in enough nutrition are all ways you work on self-care. This self-care gives you a fighting chance to process not just your grief now but also in the months and years that follow. That is resilience-building. Breaking down the overwhelming tasks of the “business of death and grief” into smaller steps then getting them done increases resilience. This is because you are proving that you can get through the muck of this part of the journey and can deal with more muck in the future.
“This really doesn’t feel like resilience.”
After your life has imploded due to grief and loss, you start finding ways to pull yourself back onto the path of the living. This can feel like such an overwhelming task because, in all honestly, it is overwhelming. However, it is not impossible! In order to rebuild, you first have to accept what has happened, in all of its awful, horrible, and ugly clump of details. You might wish that you could rewind everything and go back to the way things were, but you can’t. Accepting and reflecting on the impact of what happened, facing the next steps, and knowing that there will be more change ahead are all signs of resilience.
“That sounds great, but what else can I do?”
After that initial shock wave of grief has calmed down, the next round of self-care begins and, also, bolsters resilience. Here are a couple of examples:
1. Exercise. Stress damages neurons in the brain which impacts your ability to handle current and future stress. Exercise encourages the development of new neurons and, over time, can help a person respond to stress better.
2. Gratitude. Writing down three things each day for which you are grateful can give you a slightly different point of view on things. When negative thoughts are really strong, doing the gratitude list on a regular basis can work on reminding yourself of the positive which does exist.
3. Mindfulness. Focusing your attention, staying in the moment, letting obsessive thoughts “float away,” and training your breathing takes time and practice. However, it does pay off! The results of such practice are lowered blood pressure, reduced anxiety levels, a mini break from intense emotions. It allows you to prove to yourself that you cansurvive this moment and then the next and then the next.
4. Ask for help. We get better at responding and adjusting to change in life by learning from our own experiences and from the experiences and knowledge of others. Recognizing that you need help with your grief and then asking for it can make the grieving process easier and give you more tools to use (read: be more resilient) in the future.
5. Laugh. Research has shown that humor helps improve mood, relieve pain, improve the immune system, and soothe tension. Victor Frankl, a psychiatrist who wrote about surviving concentration camps in World War II, stated, “Humor was another of the soul’s weapons in the fight for self-preservation.” If humor helped in those inhumane circumstances, it can help with almost anything.
At the end of the day, resilience is a life-long goal for everyone, not just for those in grief. There are many other recommendations out there for how to increase resilience. Some examples include working on communication and problem-solving skills, facing your fears, maintaining a hopeful outlook, etc. However, these may be better addressed when you are in between the emotional and physical waves of grieving. In the meantime, be compassionate with yourself wherever you are in your grief journey and know that you are indeed working on becoming more resilient every step the way.
And, always remember, you don’t have to journey alone…
Bonnano, G. A., Wortman, C.B., Lehman, D.R., et al., (2002). Resilience to loss and chronic grief: A prospective study from preloss to 18-months postloss. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83(5), 1150-1164.
Bonnano, G. A. (2009). Grief doesn’t come in stages and it’s not the same for everyone: Why we’re wrong about grief. Psychology Today: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/thriving-in-the-face-trauma/200910/grief-doesnt-come-in-stages-and-its-not-the-same-every.
The road to recovery. American Psychological Association, accessed April, 2017. http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/road-resilience.aspx.