Where did this come from? I pointed to a note someone had left in my husband Vito’s ICU unit where he was lying paralyzed. A serious case of Guillain-Barré, a neurological disease that attacks the myelin sheath around nerves, had rendered his body’s nerves useless. I had gone out to grab a quick lunch only to come back to find a yellow post-it note with some words scrawled on it.

Who left this? I asked as I re-read the quote, beginning to tear up. The words landed squarely in a well of vulnerability and need that I hadn’t yet named. Despite my outward facade of having it all handled, I really needed to hear those words. That quote meant someone believed in our family’s ability to handle this latest gut punch, even if I was feeling kind of shaky.

The ICU nurse smiled and said that Dr. Jason Litten-our son Nick’s oncologist-had dropped by. He only had a short break from his own duties, but wanted to see Vito and spend some time with him.

Jason was especially important to our family. He had been the lead on Nick’s oncology team from the moment that Nick was diagnosed at age sixteen and had seen us through some really hard times.

It was precisely that knowledge of who we were as a family and what we had gone through that made his words so powerful. He believed in us and in our ability to get through this. But even more than that – Jason held up a mirror so that we could see it ourselves – our own resilience. He came by to remind us that we had, even if we might have temporarily forgotten them, inner stores of courage, persistence, and wisdom.

What do we know about resilience?

Webster’s dictionary defines resilience as “an ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change.” For me, it means being able to get back up after a gut punch and keep moving forward, even when the way isn’t yet clear and the footsteps are still bit wobbly.

Resilience has been a research topic for many years, focusing on both children who survive traumatic childhoods and adult victims of serious crises—for example, hurricanes, cancer, bombings, and earthquakes. Researchers have puzzled over why some children and adults go on, even after the most horrific of circumstances, to lead successful, productive lives and others don’t. What makes the difference?

What creates or fosters resilience?

Jason personified one of the most important factors we’ve come to understand in creating or fostering resilience—family, caregivers, friends who surround and support us in hard times. Other factors, according to research, include a belief in one’s ability to solve problems, take action, and personal temperament. (For more on this topic, check out The Road to Resilience)

So how do you develop your own resilience or foster it in someone you love? Over the next several blogs, I’ll share some practical strategies taken from the research and my own experience. I hope you will try them out, keep the ones that work for you, and share them with others. For now, here’s the first two:

Resilience Builders

Create a community of support: I’ve written about this previously (see the blog archive) but it bears repeating. Having a team of people who guide, advise, handle logistics, or just listen is critical, not only when you are trying to survive the initial shock of a crisis. They can also help us find our inner resources and ability to endure during the crisis and afterwards, when the process of recovery begins.

Talk back to the mind monkeys: Your mind, when faced with a crisis, will do what thousands of years has evolved it to do—look for the most dangerous outcomes and respond with the thoughts and emotions those scenarios will evoke. Part of enhancing your resilience is to see the crisis as potentially solvable—maybe not all of it, but parts of it. Like the old adage goes, “How do you eat an elephant? A piece at a time.” Chew on the pieces you can solve now, rather than focusing on how huge the problem seems.

Next time-more strategies and ideas of how to build resilience in yourself or foster it in someone you love.

The human capacity for burden is like bamboo- far more flexible than you’d ever believe at first glance.”

― Jodi Picoult, My Sister’s Keeper