I was in my car listening to the Diane Rehm show the other day when I heard a story on resilience. The program’s main point was that people who are optimistic, have strong social networks, or have a sense of purpose in life are better able to adapt and recover from the traumatic events they experience. (Full story: https://thedianerehmshow.org/shows/2015-08-24/the-science-of-resilience-and-how-it-can-be-learned).
Having experience a profound sense of loss myself, I was intrigued.
I don’t grieve anymore over Kristen’s death, so I wasn’t listening to learn strategies for coping with my own tragedy.
I’m an educator, so I was more interested in hearing what experts have discovered about trauma and how the most resilient people recover from it.
Plus, I was simply curious to see how my experience compared to others’:
- Based on the research, am I resilient?
- Did I unknowingly follow any steps that these experts recommend?
I just had to know.
According to one of the panelists, resilience means being able to overcome trauma or major obstacles in life without developing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, or substance abuse—or, in extreme situations, developing these symptoms but overcoming them to lead a productive life.
That described me.
I never developed PTSD, and I never turned to drugs or alcohol to try to escape my pain. I was depressed for a time after Kristen died, but it didn’t last very long, in part because I sought help from my counselor, my friends, my family, and my church.
But more than anything else in my life, having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ made all the difference.
I wondered if the program would discuss religion at all, so I kept listening and was pleasantly surprised to hear the experts say that it really can help.
Here’s the exact quote:
“One of the characteristics of some resilient people is that they have a sense of spirituality and, in some cases, have found religion to be very helpful in overcoming tough times. … It’s not for everybody but definitely for certain individuals, religious belief, faith, a moral compass, is very helpful in overcoming tough times.”
Now that may sound like an overly secular or politically correct way to include religion in the conversation, but I appreciated this comment because being a Christian is the primary reason I was able to overcome the major challenge of losing my wife so soon after she gave birth to our second child.
I’m sure there were other reasons, too. The panel listed all kinds of factors that can help:
- Genetics – some people just naturally respond well to trauma
- Adaptation – learn to respond to tragedy in a productive way
- Challenges – force ourselves outside our comfort zones
- Volunteering – take our minds off our own pain in order to help others
- Social networks – find comfort in the people (or pets) around us
I never tried those last three suggestions, and I don’t have any pets (though I’m sure my kids would have loved having one!) But I know that a lot of people surrounded me with love, comfort, and support, which kept me going. And once I was able to move beyond the fog that had enveloped me, I could volunteer and make a real difference in other people’s lives.
So, according to the experts, I am resilient, and I had unknowingly followed some of their advice.
But the main point I always share with people when they ask me, “How do you do it?” or when they exclaim, “I don’t know how you do it!” is that Jesus Christ gives me hope, peace, and comfort.
Yes, having a strong group of friends and family helps.
Yes, choosing to respond productively to tragedy is important.
Yes, assisting others in need is a great way to look past one’s own pain.
Jesus teaches me that I am blessed when I mourn, because I will be comforted.
That with God all things are possible.
That I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength.
That if I have even the tiniest bit of faith, I can tell mountains to move, and they will move.
That if I believe in God and His one and only son, I will not perish but have everlasting life.
That’s why I kept going after I faced such a traumatic experience.
That’s why I keep going now.
That’s why I take my kids to church whenever the doors are open — I want them to see that a life with Jesus makes all the difference.
Following my personal tragedy, could I have been resilient and lived a productively life? Yes.
Would I have wanted to? No.
How we respond to tragedy does matter. Turning to Jesus was my first and best strategy.
Jesus, Jesus, Jesus…there’s just something about that name.