Everything we know about resilience tells us that it grows best in our relationships with others. Resilience is that special ability to spring back from adversity. It’s a word also used to describe how we can become stronger as a result of the struggles in life. I was at the diner the other day with some friends. We were talking about our kids and how they were doing since 12/14 and how they can be more resilient. After several minutes of my friends talking, here is how the conversation went.
“My 15 year old? I think … is OK. He doesn’t say much. I have noticed he locks the front door now when he comes home,” one dad said.
“I got an e-mail from …’s teacher. She hasn’t handed in two homework assignments. She’s never done that,” said another.
A young mom commented, “My six-year-old started sleeping with us again. Otherwise, he seems OK.”
A mother of four said, “We asked … how she feels after 12/14. She told us she was sad. She cries from time to time. I don’t worry about that so much. But, she doesn’t want to go to gymnastics anymore. She’s in her room a lot.”
By now, all the parents at the table had heard that it was a normal part of grieving to see a lot of what we were seeing in our kids. Some kids were more afraid and cautious, some had become listless and were avoiding homework, younger kids sometimes take a few steps backwards developmentally and act younger than their age, some become more isolated while others become overly attached to their peers.
What they all have in common is that these reactions can be looked at for the half-developed strengths they point to. There are strengths hidden in these reactions that need to be coaxed out. In fact, the best ways to help a child through these challenges is to look for the strength in the grief reaction and bring it out.
When our kids are afraid, when they become aware that life can be scary and dangerous, the next step is to talk about how precious life is. We fear death or being hurt because we feel that life is precious. We can talk about how important it is, then, to value and protect not only our own life, but also the lives of everyone and everything around us. We can then talk about how, even though we’ve felt afraid, we can act with courage and be of service to others as a way to show how much we value life. Fear is then turned into a commitment for the value of life.
Then, find some positive action you can take together to make that commitment to life together. In this way, you help your child turn fear into compassion and to know they can work with you to change things. You help them turn passivity and powerlessness into action. The action helps them build competence and then confidence. You teach them courage.
The sadness of grief is another half expressed virtue. Grief is really a form of love. But, love in the form of heartbreak due to the absence of the loved one. So, the work of grief is really about finding a new form for love to take. We can talk to our kids about how to do this. We can acknowledge the anguish of the pain of grief. But then, we use the pain to focus on the value of the love for the one we lost in our life and how we can find a new way to express it: helping another, a memorial, contributing our time and effort for a cause for instance. These actions turn the passivity of the anguish of grief into commitment and movement on behalf of the love of the one we grieve for. The kids learn how to be more empowered, not less, from grief.
Isolation is a particularly troublesome problem if it goes on too long. To be sure, we need to be alone sometimes. But, if the isolation sours into alienation from others and the ties of relationships are weakened as a result, then its beneficial effect is lost. Often, the isolation comes from a sense of powerlessness over life. We can feel overwhelmed by emotions that there are no words for. Not knowing how to tell anyone what we are experiencing, we feel isolated. For a child who is still developing language skills, this can be especially overwhelming, even paralyzing leading to a loss of hope and motivation.
One of the most important lessons in life comes from what we do with that sense of powerlessness. If we can let our kids know that every person who has ever lived has had to face their powerlessness in one way or the other, then we can talk about how this powerlessness is one shared experience that binds us all together as one human family. We learn compassion come from this understanding that everyone suffers, everyone at some point is powerless. This truth either makes us feel alone and impotent in our lives, or it shows us that we need each other. Our kids need us to help them choose the latter.
If we miss that lesson, despair over our powerlessness and isolation can corrode our character. We can’t let that happen. These are important teaching moments.
There is no recipe for this kind of growth and everyone moves through this differently. But, what we do know is true for all: what we loosely call the “symptoms” of grief that we see in ourselves, our kids and each other are actually the first stages of a birth of sorts. If left to themselves, fear, anger, isolation and powerlessness will turn corrosive and lead to despair. If we allow them to give birth to the resilient strengths they contain, these same “symptoms” can give us a more meaningful view of life, added confidence, an enriched sense of compassion for the world, a firmer commitment to the welfare of others and confidence in our ability to give to and be nurtured by others in our lives. It’s important we not miss these opportunities for growth.
We're all still adjusting. The bottom line is, if we’re going to suffer, we should suffer successfully. That means finding the strengths that lie in our pain and helping our loved ones, especially our kids, do the same.
(John Woodall, MD is a Board Certified psychiatrist who lives in Newtown. He is formerly of the faculty at Harvard Medical School and is the Founder and Director of the Unity Project, a resilience-building program helping thousands of children in New York after 9/11, New Orleans and Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina, former child soldiers in Uganda and now at Newtown High School. His blog, The Resilient Life, is at www.johnwoodall.net.)