The Faith Middleton Show
10:41 am
Thu December 12, 2013

The Face of Resilience

Credit Chion Wolf / WNPR

From Faith Middleton: What is resilience? To my horror, I stumbled on one dictionary definition saying resilience is “returning to the original shape.” Who, I wonder, had such an idea? How many copy editors read that and agreed it made sense? Was there anyone on staff who'd been traumatized by what life can randomly dish out? Apparently it must be said that it is impossible to be the same after some events, and to expect such a recovery from ourselves or others is both ignorant and cruel. Still, resilience is possible, if by resilience we mean the ability to continue, to go on attached, even by a thread, to hope, to life itself.

Our long-time contributor Bruce Clements has maintained his grip on life. About a year ago, Bruce suggested we do a show on surviving the loss of a child. Bruce is a survivor; he lost his young son, Mark, to suicide.

During that on-air conversation, one caller haltingly explained that he had lost his own family in a terrible house fire in Fairfield County on Christmas Eve. He told us that the one sustaining thing for him was starting a scholarship fund in the names of his children. It was a rare communication from the man whose story appeared in media all over the world. I thought his desire to shun media was wise, since I could not see how publicity might have helped him.

But there was another man who reached out the day after our show, and when I heard how he still struggled with the loss of his child five years earlier, I put him in touch with Bruce, a former minister and university professor. It was the start of a series of communications between the two of them. With permission, I offer you Bruce's letter to this man:

Dear R,

It was good talking with you Saturday, hearing your voice and getting to know a little about your life as it was and as it is.

Out of our radio program on the loss of a child has come another, which we have not yet recorded. The topic of that show will be what we do with—how we use—the terrible events of our lives.

My idea about how we use such horrible events goes like this: we use them to stay afloat, and sometimes hang onto them to keep afloat.

Six or eight weeks after my son Mark's death, I said to myself, “You have begun to depend on it.” I may have switched that line to, “You are beginning to feed on Mark's death.” Not an easy fact to admit.

Behind that insight was something I have always known, that in our fight to survive and be at home with ourselves, we use whatever comes our way, whatever is near at hand.

So, in those awful weeks when, as we both know, the news comes at you fresh at odd times, and without warning or reason, I had to make clear to myself that this horrible event—I was using to define myself to myself. I saw myself, first and foremost, as the man whose son had died.

There are times, I think, when we need such definitions—when no other understanding of ourselves seems possible—but there comes a time when a lot of our energy is being spent keeping that flotation device afloat.

Crazy, but for me it would have happened with bad results for me and those I loved. (Mark's youngest sister, for example, who was in 8th grade.)

Staying afloat, near drowning but not quite, by means of letting the worst thing in your life remain the great thing, is awful.

Oddly enough, the question of whether that is happening doesn't need an answer. Perhaps we are too close to the awful event, too involved in it, to be able to answer. It's enough to ask it, to be aware of your need to open your hand and let it go and discover that you can and do keep your head above water without it.

Crazy life.

Since women are always (almost always?) able to see more clearly in matters of the heart than we are, ask M's view.

Sincerely,
Bruce

It's called “post-traumatic growth,” what can happen even as people struggle against the most challenging adversity. Trauma specialists Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun of the University of North Carolina-Charlotte say these are the signs of post-traumatic growth:

  • Changes in how you now relate to other people
  • A recognition of new opportunities, priorities, or pathways in life
  • A greater appreciation for the value of one's own life, and life in general
  • A recognition of one's own strength
  • Spiritual or existential development

Read more about Tedeschi and Calhoun's work at their Psychology Today blog, or on their academic research site.

Join the conversation by email, on Twitter, or on Facebook.

GUESTS:

  • Shari Burton is an educational assistant at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
  • Stephanie Cinque founded the Resiliency Center of Newtown.
  • Bruce Clements is an author and long-time contributor to our show.
  • Nancy Horn is a New Haven psychologist and long-time contributor to our show.

MUSIC:

  • “Gne Gne,” Montefiori Cocktail
  • “Sun Will Set,” Zoë Keating
  • “Optimist,” Zoë Keating
  • “Escape Artist,” Zoë Keating

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