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Building Resilience

In "Why Do We Grieve?", and "Experiencing Grief", we not only explored the relationship between loss and bereavement; we reviewed the concept of stages within grieving. In Coping with Unexpected Death, we examined the unique set of challenges affecting survivors of unanticipated loss; and in Healing after Loss, we considered the notion of "effective grieving" and took a close look at ways we can better manage our emotions. Here, we'll take a look at the connection between grieving and psychological resilience; how bereavement can help in building resilience.

What is Resilience?

The dictionary defines resilience as "the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties"; and secondarily, "toughness or elasticity". Other definitions exist as well. The American Psychological Association, in "The Road to Resilience", describes resilience as "the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of means 'bouncing back' from difficult experiences."

And in her book, The Truth about Grief, Ruth Konigsberg tells us resilience in bereavement "is reaching an acceptable adjustment to someone's death within a relatively short period of time." While George Bonanno argued "resilience was the ability to maintain relatively stable, healthy levels of psychological and physical functioning despite extremely disruptive events."

Here's something important to remember: resilience isn't a trait which people either have or do not have; instead it is a set behaviors, thoughts and actions which can be learned by anyone, at almost any age. What some call "dispositional resilience", or "hardiness" involves three essential components:

  • Remaining connected to other people rather than isolating themselves
  • Feeling grief was manageable and under control
  • Embracing and learning from new experiences

Several additional factors are associated with building resilience, including:

  • The capacity to make realistic plans and take steps to carry them out
  • A positive self-image
  • Confidence in personal strengths and abilities
  • Skills in communication and problem solving
  • The ability to manage strong feelings and impulses

Building resilience is a very personal activity, and what works for one person may not work for another. An individual's cultural and social background influences their ability to be resilience; as does (to some degree or another) their personality. But George Bonanno believes personality to be less of a factor than we might think. "Personality probably predicts only about 10% of resilience," he notes. "Having money helps, having social support helps, having minimal other sources of stress helps, but nothing is a big predictor, it's all just a bunch of things that explain little pieces of the pie. We'd like to have four slices, but it's probably more like twenty slices."

Tips for Building Resilience

"What is perhaps most intriguing about resilience is not how prevalent it is; rather, it is that we are consistently surprised by it," writes George Bonanno. It's fairly common to overhear an individual remark, "I don't know how I lived through it, but I did." That's resilience; and even when we're talking about ourselves, our personal ability to rebound from loss can take us by surprise.

If you're interested in using this time of bereavement to develop a higher degree of resilience, experts (such as Stephen Joseph, George Bonanno, and Ruth Konigsberg) have given us some guidelines for using grief to bolster our ability to adjust to adversity or loss:

Make sure that you are safe. Sometimes people feel so disoriented after the loss of a loved one that they unknowingly (but sometimes deliberately) put themselves in danger. They do this any number of ways: by leaving appliances turned on, for example; driving recklessly, or being an inattentive pedestrian.

Stay physically active. "Your physical state affects how you feel," says Joseph. "For that reason it's important to make sure your body is active during each day. Do think about engaging in exercise, depending on your physical condition."

Make sure that you are getting medical, psychological, and legal help if you need it. "Seeking help is not a sign of weakness," argues Joseph. "When people are vulnerable, they need to have people around them who can protect them and shelter them in some way."

Keep pleasurable things in your life and try to maintain your routines as much as possible. Though you may feel tired or unmotivated you need to take time to do the things you used to enjoy. "Perhaps you can even try something new occasionally," recommends Joseph. And although "you might not be able to maintain your routines at the same level as before, don't let them slip altogether."

Make sure that you are eating well. Good nutrition is essential. So be sure you don't overeat. And do your best to consume healthy fruits and vegetables, avoid processed food, and don't forget to drink lots of water.

Practice learning to relax. "All too often, people forget to breathe. Breathing is the key to relaxation. Take a moment to focus on taking slow, steady breaths. Your out-breath should be longer than your in-breath: as you breathe out, count to eleven (11); then as you breathe in, count to seven (7).

Make sure that you are getting enough sleep. "Avoid coffee in the late afternoon and evening, (don't) eat too much in the hours before bedtime, do not watch TV in bed, and ensure your bedroom is completely dark."

Always do your best to practice self-compassion. "After trauma, people may become critical of themselves, agonizing about what they should have done," shares Joseph. Begin by thinking about how you would feel toward loved ones who are suffering. What is it you would want to say to them? Imagine the kind, gentle tone of your voice. "Now, practice offering yourself the same compassion you would give to someone else."

Make valuable, healing connections. Being active in civic groups, charitable or faith-based organizations can provide essential social support, and can also help us to reclaim our sense of hopefulness. Never forget that assisting others in their time of need always benefits both parties: those being helped as well as those doing the helping.

Avoid seeing this situation as insurmountable. Certainly, none of us can avoid stressful events and situations, but we can change how we interpret and respond to these events. Do your best to look beyond the present moment, and take note of any of the ways in which you already feel better as you deal with difficult situations.

Recognize that change is a part of living. The act of accepting circumstances as they are and realizing they cannot be changed; will help you to focus on circumstances you can change. Remember the Serenity Prayer? Attributed to American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, a pre-1951 version of the prayer begins: "God, give me grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed,Courage to change the things which should be changed,and the Wisdom to distinguish the one from the other." Over the years, it has done much to ease troubled hearts and minds, and reciting it frequently could do the same for you.

Create and move toward goals. No matter the specifics of our situation, it's always good to have one or two realistic goals. Instead of focusing on tasks that seem unachievable, (such as "Today I won't feel sad or depressed"); set a measurable goal, "Today I will eat a green vegetable both at lunch and dinner." Every morning when you get out of bed, ask yourself "What's one thing I know I can accomplish today that will help move me in the right direction?"

Look for opportunities within the hardship. Do what you can to learn from this experience, thereby enhancing your appreciation for living.

Develop a positive self-image. Work to become more confident in your ability to solve problems, but also trust your instincts. Both will help you to grow your resilience.

Stay hopeful. Realize an optimistic outlook makes it possible for us to expect that good things will happen.

Turn to Your Past For Insights

Let's spend some time focusing on your past; what previous experiences can help you recognize those existing strategies you've already successfully used in building resilience? By exploring answers to the following questions about yourself and your reactions to challenging life events, you may discover how you can respond effectively to difficult situations in your life:

  • What types of events are most stressful for you?
  • How have they typically affected you?
  • Who did you reach out to for support?
  • What have you learned about yourself during difficult times?
  • How were you able to overcome obstacles and hardships?
  • What has helped you to feel more hopeful about the future?

Stephen Joseph, author of What Doesn't Kill Us, shares, "Posttraumatic growth does not imply the absence of emotional distress and difficulties in living; indeed, such difficulties are common among people who have suffered trauma or adversity in their lives. What this term does imply is that it is possible through the struggle with adversity to come out on the other side, sometimes strong, and more philosophical about life."

Before Closing

Here at the end of our conversation about resilience through bereavement and grief, we would like to reinforce Stephen Joseph's three key messages for grievers, which are: you are not on your own, trauma is a normal and natural process, and growth is a journey. If you feel isolated and alone, or find your bereavement journey to be too difficult; we urge you to call us at (519) 941-1392. We're here to walk the path at your side, for as long as you would like or need us to; you are, as Joseph said, not going through this on your own. Reach out to us; we will feel privileged to speak with you.

Online Sources:

American Psychological Association, "The Road to Resilience", accessed 2014.

Offline Sources:

Bonanno, George, The Other Side of Sadness: What the New Science of Bereavement Tells Us about Life after Loss, Basic Books, 2009

Joseph, Stephen, What Doesn't Kill Us: The New Psychology of Posttraumatic Growth, Basic Books, 2011

Konigsberg, Ruth Davis, The Truth about Grief: The Myth of its Five Stages and the New Science of Loss, Simon & Schuster, 2011