Learn­ing to cope with trauma and tragedy

Deal­ing with loss can be daunt­ing, but this book is a use­ful guide


THERE are times when you re­ally need some­one to talk to, some­one who cares for you. How­ever, when you need peo­ple the most, it is some­times dif­fi­cult to find a true friend. In such mo­ments, one dis­cov­ers the true value of a book. Late Amer­i­can aca­demic Charles Wil­liam Eliot re­minded us that “books are the qui­etest and most con­stant of friends, they are the most ac­ces­si­ble and wis­est of coun­sel­lors and the most pa­tient of teach­ers.”

“Op­tion B: Fac­ing Ad­ver­sity, Build­ing Re­silience and Find­ing Joy” is such a book. Com­pelling and in­spir­ing, it helps us deal with the loss and tragedy we all ex­pe­ri­ence at some point in our lives.

Adam Grant, a psy­chol­o­gist and au­thor, co-wrote this book with Sh­eryl Kara Sand­berg, ac­tivist, au­thor and chief op­er­at­ing of­fi­cer of Face­book.

When Sand­berg’s hus­band died in 2015, she was dev­as­tated. She could not even grasp what was hap­pen­ing to her, but she knew that she had to go on. She had to wake up ev­ery morn­ing and go to work. She had to get over the shock. But what about the pain? Can re­silience help us deal with the deep sor­row that never seems to go away? Is it pos­si­ble to find out in ad­vance how re­silient we are?

“No,” says Grant. Our level of re­silience is not some­thing pre-fixed. Re­silience is the ca­pac­ity of adapt­ing well in the face of ad­ver­sity, trauma or tragedy. The good news is that we can build re­silience.

The au­thors share what they have learned about re­silience and also tell the sto­ries of re­mark­able peo­ple who have over­come ex­tra­or­di­nary dif­fi­cul­ties. They look at the steps peo­ple take to help them­selves and to help oth­ers.

They study the chal­lenges of re­gain­ing con­fi­dence and study ways to speak about tragedy and com­fort friends.

Psy­chol­o­gist Martin Selig­man has spent many years study­ing how peo­ple over­come hard­ship and found out that three be­liefs can post­pone one’s re­cov­ery. First, the be­lief that the in­di­vid­ual is at fault, sec­ond, that an event will af­fect all the ar­eas of their life and third, that they shall al­ways suf­fer from it.

Var­i­ous stud­ies have shown that chil­dren and adults re­cover more quickly when they re­al­ize that they are not re­spon­si­ble for par­tic­u­lar hard­ships and that th­ese hard­ships will nei­ther im­pact their whole lives nor af­fect them for­ever.

Hu­man be­ings have the tools to re­cover from loss and trauma, but we of­ten for­get to use them and we are so ab­sorbed by our daily problems that we for­get to talk to peo­ple who are suf­fer­ing.

Sand­berg re­al­ized her own short­com­ings when she suf­fered due to peo­ple’s ap­par­ent in­dif­fer­ence. She could not un­der­stand why her friends never asked her how she was cop­ing with­out her hus­band, for ex­am­ple.

When au­thor Mitch Car­mody lost his nine-yearold son due to a brain tu­mor, he said: “Our child dies a sec­ond time when no one speaks their name.” Si­lence can be cruel. When we do not talk to peo­ple who suf­fer, we isolate them. Si­lence in­creases suf­fer­ing. The truth is that your clos­est friends are not your best friends when you are ex­pe­ri­enc­ing great hard­ship. Peo­ple who have faced ad­ver­sity are far more com­pas­sion­ate to­ward oth­ers who are suf­fer­ing, ac­cord­ing to the book.

Sand­berg ex­plained how a sim­ple greet­ing — such as “how are you?” — can be per­ceived as hurt­ful be­cause it does not ac­knowl­edge that any­thing out of the or­di­nary has hap­pened. How­ever, when peo­ple ask more tai­lored ques­tions — such as “how are you to­day?” — it shows that they are aware that a per­son may be strug­gling to get through each day.

“Not ev­ery­one feels com­fort­able talk­ing openly about per­sonal tragedy… Still, there’s pow­er­ful ev­i­dence that open­ing up about trau­matic events can im­prove men­tal and phys­i­cal health. Speak­ing to a friend or fam­ily mem­ber of­ten helps peo­ple un­der­stand their own emo­tions and feel un­der­stood,” Sand­berg wrote.

Au­thor Emily McDow­ell ac­knowl­edges that the worst part of be­ing di­ag­nosed with cancer was not feel­ing sick af­ter the chemo­ther­apy or los­ing her hair, “it was… the lone­li­ness and iso­la­tion I felt when many of my close friends and fam­ily mem­bers dis­ap­peared be­cause they didn’t know what to say or said the ab­so­lute wrong thing with­out re­al­iz­ing it.”

The best thing you can say to some­one who is suf­fer­ing is “I un­der­stand your pain (and) I’m here with you,” but too of­ten, and for all the wrong rea­sons, we do not say any­thing. We are afraid to say the wrong thing or we con­vince our­selves that we do not want to bother the per­son and we put off call­ing un­til we feel guilty.

The same peo­ple who post­pone talk­ing to some­one in need are of­ten the ones who hate ask­ing for help. Sand­berg says that she used to de­fine her friend­ships by what she could of­fer, but she soon dis­cov­ered that she was the one who needed help, “I did not just feel like a bur­den… I truly was a bur­den. I learned that friend­ship isn’t only what you can give, it is also what you can re­ceive.”

The au­thors go on to tackle the im­por­tance of rais­ing re­silient chil­dren by telling the story of Ti­mothy Cham­bers, an award-win­ning painter who is 70 per­cent deaf and legally blind. His paint­ings are so full of emo­tion and life that it has led many to won­der how the artist is able to paint with so much pre­ci­sion.

“In­stead of tak­ing in the whole scene, he scans his sub­ject bit by bit, mem­o­riz­ing as many de­tails as he can, then he fills in from mem­ory what his eyes leave out,” Sand­berg wrote.

Cham­bers suf­fers from Usher syn­drome, a con­di­tion that af­fects both hear­ing and vi­sion. At the age of five, he wore hear­ing aids and at 30, a doc­tor told him to find an­other pro­fes­sion. He did not give up and be­gan teach­ing art classes on­line.

Cham­bers be­lieves he learned how to be re­silient from his fa­ther. He re­mem­bers that when he com­plained the chil­dren at his school were star­ing and won­der­ing what was in his ear, his fa­ther told him he should press on his hear­ing aid, throw a punch in the air and say in a loud voice, “yes, the Cubs are up two-one in the ninth!’’ He fol­lowed his fa­ther’s ad­vice and his school­mates were jeal­ous as they thought he was lis­ten­ing to a game dur­ing a bor­ing class.

Cham­bers learned how to re­spond to em­bar­rass­ment with hu­mor. He dis­cov­ered that the way he re­acted to his dis­abil­ity in­flu­enced how oth­ers re­acted. In other words, he was able to con­trol the way he was per­ceived. His fa­ther in­stinc­tively knew that you are not born re­silient, you be­come re­silient.

This book is like a multi-vi­ta­min pill, it boosts your en­ergy and morale and pushes you for­ward in life.

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