What Makes Survivors Resilient?
Recently I was asked this question by a PTSD survivor-turned-therapist, about how I would answer the question: What makes survivors resilient?
Here is my response (*name changed for privacy):
What a great question, Kate:*
I believe survivors are resilient because they exercise choice (either knowingly or unknowingly). By choice, they take the first step toward overcoming.
And, each time a person endures adversity and survives, they become stronger. Many draw faith from past experiences, as well as from support of others who have suffered similarly.
In many cases, belief in a divine or higher power is where people derive their core faith, because they believe there is a cloud of witnesses who have gone before them who have survived similar ordeals – and are surrounding them with support.
However, our life experiences, our enduring and surviving tragedy, are never in vain. We can always use our situations of survival to aid and assist others.
Ultimately, although difficult to recognize sometimes, pain can be our best teacher. We can harvest wisdom from loss and death; and in turn be of help to ourselves by helping others through their similar pain and suffering. In this way we are sharing in the human condition. Someone else’s pain becomes our pain. I believe that only then can someone else’s joy, become our joy.
The English metaphysical poet, John Donne’, said, “no man in an island…do not think for whom the bell tolls, the bell tolls for thee.” Martin Luther King, Jr. shared a similar sentiment when, in a letter penned in a Birmingham, AL jail, he said, “we are all interconnected…I cannot become what I am supposed to become until you become what you are supposed to become….”
Learning to use pain as my teacher has been most difficult for me, even though from a young age I watched helplessly as my own family endured what seemed like more than enough illness, tragic loss, and death.
My first journal entry, dated in the fall of 3rd grade, was about the death of a classmate who was found trying to escape from a house fire in her family’s home. She had suffocated, thinking she could “escape” by hiding underneath her bed covers. She was only 8 years old.
That experience defined the tone and rhythm of my life. I live in a stage of grateful urgency, because I want to live the full width and depth of my life at all times. I don’t want to waste a single moment, because I know from experience that it can all be gone in the blink of an eye. The rest of my life experiences underscored that early life lesson.
Only a few years later, when I was 12 years old, I lost the closest thing to a sister I would ever have, my cousin, to a drunk driver. I was 12. She was 16. It took months just to get past the initial denial stage for me. Then after that, years of introverted, self-reflective, waiting-for-the-other-shoe-to-drop withdrawal.
Not very long after graduating from college both of my grandfathers passed away, too young, too soon. Then after graduate school, a family suicide. After multiple life-threatening accidents, there have been years of devastating terminal diagnoses within my family. And for myself, my childhood and young adult life brought being witness to, and then ultimately, a victim of, violent crime.
But somewhere along the way, I reached a point of no longer asking the question “why me?” and instead replaced it with the questions, “What can I learn from this loss? How can I emerge stronger, better, wiser?” Asking that question was, and still is, never easy. But, for me, it is the alchemy of cultivating resilience.
Adversity Reveals A Wo(Man) to Her/Himself
Pain can often times teach us more than pleasure, and adversity can teach us more than our success. Tragedy is our wise and all-knowing teacher. The poet Rumi spoke this wisdom well in his poem, “The Guest House,” perhaps one of my favorite poems.
The Guest House
Translated by Coleman Barks
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
A Mother’s Loss
Here is a response I recently wrote to a student who attends the Professional Yoga Therapy Institute where I teach. She confided in me in confidence (so there are no names mentioned) about the very recent loss of her baby boy, which she gave birth to at 20 weeks. He was stillborn. With no explanation or reason why, they will never know why he died.
Dear Molly (not her real name),
I cannot even finish reading before I have to start writing back to you. I am so, so, so incredibly and eternally sorry that you lost your beautiful baby boy.
Now that I read more, and about your labor to deliver this little angel, tears flow for you. I am so sorry. What you have been through is a most difficult tragedy.
I can say that there is a colleague and student (in the program), who just went through what you did, just a few months ago. If you feel like it might be a help to talk with another mom who has lost her unborn child – I can talk with her and see if she is willing to be contacted.
Again, I am just so incredibly sorry to hear about this tremendous loss. I believe that these children, your baby boy, have a special place – they are not forgotten or lost. Their souls are eternally vibrant and beautiful. Some people call it Heaven – but regardless of the name given, my faith gives me hope, daily renewed, that they are forever loved.
More tears for you.
I have not experienced the loss of a child, but I have grieved heavily over the loss of a “perfect vision” of a child when my oldest son was diagnosed with a serious heart defect at just 26 months old. He had to have emergency cardiothoracic surgery and still has remaining heart defects which will affect his future health. That was followed by his diagnosis of autism a few years later.
I can share that the one and only thing that got me through was my faith and my ability to express and reflect upon it through contemplation, chiefly yoga. I could not release the grief without it. I put my faith to practice in yoga and music combined – and experimented with meditating in different yoga postures, with different music, until finally – one day during a most laborious meditation, shrouded with a heaviness that only a mother with a very sick child knows the weight of – grief was released. From my body and soul I felt it starting to loosen its death grip. It was cathartic, and healing. Although I remember distinctly not being able to cry. I could not cry. Those tears came later, during the final release of grief and pain.
I cannot tell you when that grief begins or ends – and many times we are never really fully healed from such tragic loss. But I do know that we suffer loss and death – not in vain – but in order to help others.
I try to use moments of terrible tragedy to reflect on how I can rise like a phoenix from the ashes. How can this tragedy be used to build me up and not destroy me? How can I help others through my having suffering hurt and loss? When trouble strikes me or my family, those are now my first questions.
For now, the small solace I can offer is my fervent prayers for you, and that I will contact colleagues and other therapists who may be able to offer their personal support and wisdom. I know of two therapists and will be happy to contact them if you like.
Grace and peace to you, and prayers for an abundance of love to surround you,
We can use our adversity to reveal our strengths (and not strengthen our weaknesses). In this way, we can help ourselves and others. Our spiritual fortitude will grow, and ultimately empower us to choose to thrive, not just survive.
We can overcome great tragedy and begin the long process of healing when we share our burdens with one another and build one another up in times of loss. Meditation through prayer, spiritual reading, devotion to a regular yoga practice, use of music and returning to my roots of Native American connections (time spent in nature, playing indigenous instruments, etc.) are just some of the ways I have found resilience through my own tragedies. Ultimately, the path we can should help ease us into acknowledgement of, and release from, the shackles of sorrow and grief.