Tuesday, January 13, 2015

How to Be Happier, Step 7: Resilience

This month my posts have been following a list from the blog of psychologist Jeremy Dean of ten habits that science has shown make people happier. Today I examine the seventh of these, resilience.

This has been one of my favorite sayings since I found it on a Salada tea bag tag. Those words really spoke to me, and I kept that tag pasted up over my desk for years.

I believe those words, and I’ve experienced that strength in my own life at times when I had no idea where it would come from.

From 2008 through 2012 I lived through the five worst years of my life. In January 2008 my brother passed away suddenly from a massive stroke. From then on my ninety-five-year-old mother began to deteriorate. Her mind and memory failed; she was diagnosed with dementia; she could no longer live alone. And I was the only remaining child; the responsibility for making decisions about her care was all mine.

I was blessed to have my husband and sister-in-law, who could share some of the burden and give me support, but I was the only remaining child; it was on me.

As anyone who has had to care for an aging parent knows, these decisions are the hardest ones of your life. You know that a parent with an ounce of independent spirit left will fight giving up control of his or her life. He or she will resist any suggestion of leaving the home, will swear up and down “I’m not going anywhere. I can take care of myself.” You know they will do this even when it’s obvious to everyone else that they can’t take care of themselves. Somehow you, the caregiver, have to find the strength to do what’s right while fighting your own sense of guilt and betrayal.

And so eventually, after months of trying different solutions, months of pain and heartache and fear and “What am I going to do?”, we came upon the best solution for us, to move into a new house with my mother.

This solution eased my mind about her physical safety, but it didn’t eliminate the worry. Along with worrying about her, I began to worry about my own mental health. Most nights I would finally retreat to the sanctuary of our apartment on the second floor, exhausted, stressed, and distressed, able to think only another day is past. Another day that would bring us closer to the time this would be over, when we could return to our own home. And although a certain amount of guilt came with that thought, I believe I needed to think it in order to keep myself going and to preserve my sanity.

And gradually I learned to do all the things caregivers are advised to do for themselves. I stayed in contact with my friends. I worked at maintaining my freelancing career, though it needed to be curtailed a bit. I kept my love of reading. I prayed. My husband and I continued to attend mass every Sunday. Each night I thanked God for getting us through another day. And I began to relax and to enjoy my mother’s company again: her sense of humor was still there, reminding me that my mother was still herself. We could take her out for dinner or grocery shopping and be happy that she could still enjoy those small things.

She passed in 2012. We’re back in our own home, our own life resumed. I’ve healed. And now this is what resilience means to me: to hold on; to think transcendently, lifting yourself above whatever is happening and looking ahead to a better time; to take comfort and satisfaction from the things you enjoy; to call on and be grateful for the support of friends and family. And to have faith.

There’s a line from the great Stephen Sondheim song about resilience and persistence, “I’m Still Here,” after the singer has detailed everything she’s been through in her life: “I got through all of last year/And I’m here!”

Maybe having the ability to say that is what keeps us going.


  1. I remember your journey and our discussions along the way well and love how you are able to look back upon a dark road and show how you navigated to a lighter place. I love your view on what resilience means to you now. It's strong, clear and so giving. Just like you. :)

  2. You have my sympathies, Elaine. I am also the only child and went through two years of similar, hellish experiences with my father's lung cancer and mother's dementia. Big difference is that my parents and I lived over 2000 miles apart! My mother is in a lovely private home with 24 hour caregivers now, but still far away and that is difficult. I try to visit when I can, but she doesn't really miss me. It does take some time to heal, doesn't it?

  3. Like a bamboo strong but bending in the strong wind, so shall our spirit be as resilient with the storm in our lives. Nice post. :)