How building resilience will help us to overcome the pandemic

The last two years have weighed heavily on everyone – it can sometimes feel hard to cope, but experts think there are ways forward, writes Jane E. Brody

Tuesday 08 February 2022 00:01
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Many people I know are waiting, patiently or otherwise, for life to return to normal. We are eager for the day when we can again live without fear of a deadly virus that lurks like a stalker, disrupting social and cultural events, travel, education, work and life’s milestones that once missed, can never be retrieved. How, so many of us wonder, are we supposed to cope with so many obstacles blocking our way forward?

One way is to call upon an age-old characteristic that enables us to weather adversity: resilience. Resilience is the ability to roll with the punches, “because if you’re brittle, you’ll break,” said Pauline Boss, professor emeritus at the University of Minnesota and author of the recently published book, The Myth of Closure. Boss, a family therapist, educator and researcher, is best known for her pioneering work on “ambiguous loss,” which is also the title of her 1999 book depicting unresolved, and often unresolvable, physical or emotional losses.

“When the pandemic subsides, things will not go back to ‘normal’,” said Boss, who at 87 has lived through multiple upheavals, starting with the Second World War. With all that has happened during the pandemic, she wrote, “we can’t expect to go back to the ‘normal’ we had”.

In an interview, she told me, “Normal implies status quo, but things are always changing, and if you don’t change, you don’t grow. We will never be the same again. The pandemic is epic, a power greater than us, and we have to be flexible, resilient enough to bend in order to survive. And we will survive, but our lives will be forever changed.”

Resilience allows us to adapt to stress when faced with adversity. “When resilient people are confronted with a crisis that takes away their ability to control their lives, they find something they can control,” Boss said. “At the start of the pandemic, many people turned to baking bread, homecooking and cleaning out drawers as something they could control. These were functional coping mechanisms.”

However, she added, if people are unable to adapt when faced with a problem they can’t solve, “they often turn to absolute solutions that are dysfunctional, and make statements like ‘the pandemic is a hoax’ and ‘there’s no such thing as this virus.’”

What we need to hope for is not to go back to what we had, but to see what we can create now and in the future

Although resilience is often viewed as an inherent personality trait that people either have or lack, studies have shown it is a characteristic that can be acquired. People can adopt behaviours, thoughts and actions that help to build resilience, at any age.

Boss reassured parents that their children will be all right, despite pandemic-related academic and social disruptions. “Children are naturally resilient, and they will be stronger for having survived this bad thing that happened to them. They’ll bounce back and grow from it.”

More than children, “we need to focus on adults,” she said. “This generation of parents has faced no world war, no global threat” of this scale. Many parents are struggling, although she worries that some may be overshielding their children, which can erode their natural ability to cope with adversity.

Moving forward

In her new book, Boss offers guidelines for increasing one’s resilience to overcome adversity and live well despite painful losses. She quotes Dr Viktor E Frankl, an Austrian neurologist, psychiatrist, author and Holocaust survivor, who wrote, “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” She recommended that people use each guideline as needed, in no particular order, depending on the circumstances.

When you lack clarity about a loss, it’s normal to feel ambivalent about how to act. But Boss says it’s best not to wait for clarity; hesitation can lead to inaction and puts life on hold

Find meaning. The most challenging guideline for many people is to find meaning, to make sense of a loss, and when this is not possible to take some kind of action. Perhaps seek justice, work for a cause or demonstrate to try to right a wrong. When Boss’s younger brother died from polio, her heartbroken family went door to door for the March of Dimes, raising money to fund research for a vaccine.

Adjust your sense of mastery. Instead of trying to control the pain of loss, let the sorrow flow, carry on as best as you can and eventually the ups and downs will come less and less often. “We do not have power to destroy the virus, but we do have the power to lessen its impact on us,” she wrote.

Rebuild identity. Also helpful is to adopt a new identity in sync with your current circumstances. When Boss’s husband became terminally ill, for example, her identity shifted over time from being a wife to being a caregiver, and after his death in 2020, gradually trying to think of herself as a widow.

Revise attachment. Boss emphasised that rather than trying to sever your attachment to a lost loved one, the goal should be to keep them present in your heart and mind and gradually rebuild your life in a new way, with a new sense of purpose, new friends or a new project. Accept the reality of the loss and slowly revise your attachment to the person who died. But, she said, “there is no need to seek closure, even if other relationships develop”.

Discover new hope. Begin to hope for something new that enables you to move ahead with your life in a new way. Stop waiting, take action and seek new connections that can minimise isolation and foster support that in turn nurtures your resilience.

Perhaps Boss’s most valuable advice when faced with pandemic losses: “What we need to hope for is not to go back to what we had, but to see what we can create now and in the future.” She suggested brainstorming with others and being willing to try new things. “Hope for something new and purposeful that will sustain you and give you joy for the rest of your life.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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