In early 2013, my son, Ronan, died of Tay-Sachs disease, a rare neurological disorder with no treatment or cure that slowly destroys the brain. He was diagnosed at 9 months old and lived for another two years. During the last six weeks of his life, no longer able to swallow liquids, he received Pedialyte through a skinny tube in his nose. Two years later, I stood in a drugstore, staring at a shelf of Pedialyte, unable to reach for a bottle even though my young daughter, Charlotte, needed extra hydration during a nasty flu. I felt dizzy and disoriented. I had a vivid memory of Ronan: the warmth of his chubby body…and then, after he died, heavy as the newly dead. Taking a few deep breaths, I reminded myself: Charlotte is not dying. This is a different baby, a different life. You are safe and loved.
Somehow I pulled it together, made my purchase and drove home. I felt uneasy, ridiculous. When would I get over the trauma of losing Ronan? “You’re the most resilient person I’ve ever met,” a friend once told me. Was I? I’d always thought resilience was a kind of strength, but my episode in the pharmacy was one of many in which I felt anything but strong. What is resilience, really and truly? I wondered. And as I started to dig for answers, I found that it’s more dynamic—and collaborative—than I had expected.
I contact licensed marriage and family therapist Linda Graham, author of Bouncing Back and an expert on the neuroscience of human relationships. When I tell Graham about the drugstore incident, she’s not surprised. She describes it as a classic post-traumatic stress response. “Will it always be like this?” I ask. No, she assures me. “We’re learning how to work with the plasticity of the brain to rewire memories of traumatizing experiences,” she says.
Graham’s clinical work reflects a paradigm shift in how we think about recovering from trauma. From birth, feelings of confidence and stability (as we bask in praise for taking our first steps, as we’re comforted after making a mistake) translate, over time, into resilience—a belief in ourselves and our ability to succeed. But even if such early confidence wasn’t instilled, and even if our resilience is later challenged, we can change. “Our brains are trainable,” Graham explains. “At any stage of life, we can create new pathways with every thought and emotion.”
In her practice, Graham encourages people to choose exercises that will help heal the psyche and the soul, thereby training themselves to transform a moment of criticism into one of self-acceptance. You can reframe a distressing event by remembering a time when you were confident and open. Say you mess up royally at work and are chastised by your boss. Rather than obsess over it, you should recall the praise you’ve received in the past and how good it made you feel, then remind yourself that this one error is not a testament to the sum of your skills. Graham refers to these as “Sure I can!” moments that replicate the feeling a child has when attempting a new skill.
Without realizing it, I had done this during my panicky moment at the drugstore. Yes, I had stood there frozen, recalling the dread and helplessness of caring for a terminally ill child, but I also thought of my current life and its many joys. Graham tells me that I had reconditioned the feeling of collapse into one of security. Of course, it hadn’t felt like that. I had always thought I would get to a point where I was “over” the trauma. Turns out, I was wrong. Cultivating resilience is unrelated to the clichéd notion of time healing all wounds; overcoming is not the end goal. Instead of moving on, it’s about living with what has happened. A resilient person is emotionally and psychologically flexible enough to allow the effects of a traumatic episode into her life, to “receive the shattering,” as Graham puts it, and use those effects for healing. This means accepting the feelings of despair, but also remaining open to the possibility of love and connection.
Graham believes that finding someone—a partner, a sibling, a parent, a friend—who unconditionally loves you and asking that person for support is essential to developing the secure attachment necessary for recovery. While Ronan was dying and my marriage to his father was ending, I sometimes felt that I might die, too, of sadness. I experienced what Michaela Haas, PhD, author of Bouncing Forward, calls “the rattling of one’s core beliefs,” a deeply uncomfortable part of trauma that can build resilience. Although I had always known that life could be unfair, I never thought it would be so cruel as to rob my child of his life. I was adrift; I taught my college classes in an almost hypermanic state, wrote constantly, and exercised compulsively. I pushed hard at my life as if it would save Ronan’s, and it was when I became exhausted that I finally reached out for help from friends, from family, from a therapist. I talked and cried and raged with them, and they listened to me and held me and wept with me. Only then did I feel as though my life would continue after Ronan’s had ended—and that I might even be happy again. This shift mirrors the one Graham encourages her patients to consider: “Instead of ‘You can do this,’ the thinking shifts to ‘You are big enough to hold this.’” I grew to believe that Ronan’s death would not undo me.
Now, three years after the death of my son, I am madly in love and relishing every moment of parenting a budding little girl. I am often surprised by this big life, and yet I was ready for it. I tell Graham that just moments after Ronan died, I felt a shameful sense of elation: Nothing will ever be this hard again, I thought. Not the death of my parents, not my own death. I’m heartened to hear her say that this is normal, and, in fact, a sign of resilience itself.