“To emerge from grief, to find a way to live with the loss is a continual creative act – an on-going project to build our resilience muscle.”
As I sit here writing in a café I am looking at a family sitting around a table, a pram next to them. The grandfather and two waitresses are bending over the pram, cooing and soothing a baby with that look of wonder people seem to reserve for when they are looking at babies. There are always reminders, like little barbs, small swords that wound the heart. But here’s the thing: I am now able to watch this family scene in the café and hold sadness and strength and hope all in the same moment.
When I look back and track the years that have brought me to this place of ‘multi-emotional holding’ I realise what I have developed is resilience – psychological, emotional and relational resilience. The definition of resilience as offered by the OED is:
- The capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness
- The ability of a substance or object to spring back into shape; elasticity.
My own view of emotional and psychological resilience, whilst agreeing with some of these aspects of the OED definition, is slightly different. Definitely it is a capacity to recover – but I believe each person recovers at their own speed and I don’t think it necessarily requires ‘toughness’. As for springing back into shape – well, I truly believe we can ‘spring back’ but that our eventual shape might be different to the one we originally embodied.
Each person’s capacity for resilience depends on so many circumstances: upbringing, life events, relationships, personality. Some people might have great resilience for one type of life event and then crumble emotionally at another. In my work I am constantly humbled by the resilience my clients and workshop participants demonstrate. I hear stories of loneliness, sadness, betrayal and grief and yet what many people often forget to reflect upon or celebrate is the resilience that has brought them here, still living, breathing and relating, searching for a way to extract meaning from their experience.
From my own experience, there has not been a day when I’ve woken up and thought, ‘Wow, this is it – I’m over it!’ But by developing my own brand of resilience I have been able to wake up and think, ‘Wow, my life is good!’
… many people will find ways to meet the challenge and continue with purposeful lives. For a period after their ordeal, they may become distressed, but in time they will bounce back and carry on. For some, it will be almost as if the trauma had never occurred. For others, the distress will persist, but they will find healthy ways to cope. Some survivors will even grow stronger and wiser because of their trauma. These survivors may report that their tragedy has helped them to appreciate life more, to become closer to family and friends, to find greater meaning, and sometimes to embark on a new mission in life. Southwick and Charney, ‘Resilience’.
With the benefit of my sixteen or so years of learning to live without children, I can now track how I managed to expand my resilience muscle – and how I still work to grow my capacity for resilience. So I thought I’d share with you some of my thoughts about my own experience and tie these in with some past and current thinking on resilience.
Recovering with kindness
Kindness in words creates confidence. Kindness in thinking creates profoundness. Kindness in giving creates love. Lao Tzu
I’m starting this exploration with what might be one of my toughest routes to resilience. There is a place for anger and jealousy when we are in the depths of sadness and loss. Seeing a happy family in the park, watching a woman with a newborn, hearing yet another pregnancy or birth announcement, another picture of a scan on social media – it’s all enough to make you throw your best china at the garden fence! I now realise at some point (I can’t quite remember exactly when) I started to dare myself to smile at such events or sights. It took me all my strength but I encouraged myself look at the other side of the coin and see that other person as just that – another person, another human going about their life. I couldn’t manage it every occasion but when I did I found that in thinking more kindly about them, I was actually being kinder to me. I don’t know much about the science of brain activity but I do wonder if by tricking my brain into thinking it was okay, my mind was calmed and it could accept that I was actually okay. This is not about denying my sadness and grief; this ‘brain trick’ is about allowing myself to feel something other than intense resentment. And there is a huge sense of relief in that.
It took me a long time to acknowledge that I was allowed to stop berating myself for ‘not being good enough’ because I don’t have children. I don’t have many regrets but I do wish I’d begun sooner to treat myself as I would a good friend who was going through a really bad time. When I started to let myself off the hook I found I was able to engage my ‘kindness radar’. I began to be open to receiving, and being thankful for, kindnesses afforded me and I became more aware of kindness around me. If even the smallest acts of kindness can change others’ lives, we can change our own lives through daily acts of self-kindness.
Try writing yourself a letter that begins, ‘Dear …, I know what you are going through now and I want to tell you…”
Recognising and Celebrating Change
Boris Cyrulnik in his seminal work ‘Resilience’ says:
Anyone who has been hurt has to undergo a metamorphosis…
What a powerful phrase! And so true. From that first shock of realisation that ‘this is not how it was meant to be’ to finding meaning in our pain, from the small gains and backward steps to a gradual emerging, we are changing, adapting, learning…and building the foundations for resilience. Metamorphosis does not necessarily happen overnight. It is a process of incremental steps and light bulb moments in between dark days. What has helped my own resilience development has been recognising and celebrating even those small moments in which I realised change had happened.
Part of my own story of metamorphosis is the day I stood in the baby department of M&S (a department store in UK) trying to choose a gift for a friend’s new-born. Seeing how distraught I was, my lovely husband offered to choose the gift but I knew I had to do it. Yes, it was heart-breaking and yes, I was crying – and attracting a few curious stares from fellow shoppers! I reached up and touched a tiny pale peach outfit. It was that first touch that was so hard. Once I took the outfit off the shelf I was able to breathe and next I chose an impossibly and heartbreakingly beautiful little sunhat. It was an act of love for the friend who had just given birth. I certainly didn’t punch the air once I’d done it but I recognised that it had been a transformational experience.
What differentiated this moment of emergence from pure blind, just-get-on-with-it stoicism was the sense that something fundamental had changed in me and that somehow I needed to acknowledge that. I’d faced a fear head on and I’d allowed all that mad mix of emotions to wash through and over me without judging myself or telling myself that I should show more ‘stiff upper lip’.
Like the message in this photo suggests, in time everything changes – even that train you’ve been taking for years! Change can be frightening. Sometimes, when we are deep in grief, even the thought of changing our story in order to recognise the good stuff can seem like a kind of betrayal to a way of being we have begun to inhabit. Carl Jung’s words below convey the sense that change is not a happening; it is a becoming. Celebrate even the small successes, the minutest shift in your sense of self and take note of your changes – they are an integral part of your story of metamorphosis.
‘I am not what happened to me, I am what I choose to become.’ Carl Jung
Be In Charge of your Narrative
So often we can’t imagine an alternative story, a new narrative or the opening of a new chapter. But repeating a self-damaging, unrelentingly negative narrative can affect our self-esteem and our confidence.
Consider these two ‘stories’:
Story 1: This is my story: I am my childlessness; I am sad; I will never recover from this; I will always be the same.
Story 2: This is my on-going story: childlessness happened to me; it is sad, I won’t ignore that sadness but I get to choose how this story is told; in its re-telling is my emergence.
The first story is ‘stuck’ and provides a self-fulfilling prophecy of ongoing sadness and provides no room for change. The second provides space for opportunity, for a uniqueness of spirit and self.
One of the most illuminating experiences of my journey so far was when I was asked to present at a conference of counsellors on my experience of fertility and of choosing to end treatment. I had never told my story from the beginning to the present moment and as I wrote my presentation I recognised the immense power being in charge of my narrative brought and how, because I wanted this to be a narrative of hope, something beautiful was rising out of the sadness.
You have the power to direct your own narrative and to find meaning from the sadness. Your story. Your narrative. You decide.
There is no such thing as pure unhappiness, or pure happiness. But as soon as we put sadness into a story, we give meaning to our sufferings and understand long after the event, how we succeeded in turning our unhappiness into something wonderful.
Hope in Humour
Humour provides distance and perspective , but does so without denying pain or fear. Southwick and Charney, “Resilience”
Don’t worry, I’m not going to suggest we all break into ‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life’ and sing our way to recovery! Forcing humour or laughter can be inauthentic and counter-productive and can leave us feeling a bit hollow. But we can develop a ‘humour habit’. Being open to situations and people that might bring out that different side of our selves – that carefree side that is longing just to give us a break from our challenging thoughts and feelings – can provide us with solace and relief.
Our sense of humour often takes a hit and gets subsumed by sadness and anger. But it deserves an airing every so often. It’s not about memorising jokes or entering some stand-up competition. For me it was about telling myself that laughing or having a good time was not betraying my grief or forgetting it. I plucked up all my emotional energy and went to that girls’ get-together, I read humorous books, I wrote down amusing anecdotes in my journal, I wrote short poems that satirised some of the things people said to me about childlessness over the years. Eventually, I surprised myself at how I was able to engage with the sense of humour I felt had got lost along the way. And that gave me hope that things could be different – that I could be different; that in time I could emerge from the depths of sadness that often threatened to overwhelm me.
Humour is [one] of the soul’s weapons in the fight for self-preservation.Viktor E. Frankl, “Man’s Search for Meaning”
Using Creativity to Face Your Demons
We are all creative souls. Yes, we are! Whether it’s music, art, writing, dance, photography, car mechanics, helping others, cooking…. you get the idea!
My desire to find my own creative outlet has been one of the key elements in my exercising and building resilience. Being able to write about my experience in many different ways – poetry, prose, journaling, this blog – has given me a way of engaging with what has happened to me in new and different ways. It has allowed me to view my experience both from a distance and at close range. Most importantly, writing about my childlessness and the events that led up to it has helped me face my demons and my fears. I can remember that awful gnawing doubt about the future and how I found it almost impossible to face up to the fact I would actually NEVER have children. I’m now able to see that my desire to engage with my creativity helped in two main ways:
- It provided distraction for my brain – a way to disengage from constantly thinking about my childlessness and it gave me faith that whilst I couldn’t create the family I so wanted, I could still be a creative being in the world.
- Creativity provided a safe frame in which to ask those painful ‘what if’ questions – whether that was in a poem or setting myself a photography project or creating a play list of songs that reflected my own childlessness demons.
Don’t get me wrong, creative pursuits did not instantly allow me to swipe all my demons to the right! Gradually, though, they helped me face that void that is childlessness and most importantly, to accept a situation that was beyond my control – and acceptance is a key element in the emergence from grief.
Creative expression has the power to heal emotions, and nurture the soul. When we enter the flow states of complete absorption in a creative process, we open our awareness to new perceptions, and new perspectives. Creativity is something you can control. When you take time out of time to create, you shift your field of attention into something generative and life affirming. Linda Naiman, Founder, Creativity at Work https://www.creativityatwork.com/2011/08/10/creative-resilience-5-strategies-to-help-you-thrive-during-times-of-transition/
I hope I have given you some insight into my own process of metamorphosis and emergence from the grief of childlessness. But more importantly I hope I have presented some ideas for how you can create your own unique brand of resilience.
Creating beauty out of loss, nurturing kindness, re-engaging with our sense of self is a creative project that can bring meaning to our experience and can help develop a resilient way of living that is not just about ‘getting our head down and plodding on’ but is about celebrating and embodying change – and embodying it with pride.