Straine-On-Success — Resilience Can Be Learned

Published on March 26, 2015

Resilience Can Be Learned by Clare Ansberry
Wall Street Journal – March 25, 2015
How a widow traced a long path back toward optimism

Moor-FamilyAfter losing her husband, Carolyn Moor, center, with daughters Mackensey, left, and Meagan, right, had to learn how to be optimistic again. Now she works to help other widows. Photo: Edward Linsmier for The Wall Street

When life as you know it ends, then what?

It took Carolyn Moor more than seven years to figure that out.

By her own accounts, Ms. Moor had it all. She and her husband, an architect named Chad, had two little girls, their own business and a house they designed and built in Orlando. On Valentine’s Day 2000, when they were in their mid-30s, they talked over a romantic dinner about what would come next.

While they were driving home from dinner, a car struck theirs. Her husband died from injuries. In one moment, Ms. Moor’s world was upended.

“Somewhere along the way I had come to believe that life was going to be easy,” she says. “Then suddenly, you lose someone you love. You think you will never feel life again.”

Moor-WeddingEveryone experiences loss and setbacks. We are diagnosed with serious illnesses and injured in accidents. We lose homes, jobs and loved ones. Yet even the most traumatized often manage—over time and with help—to slowly piece together their lives. It is a painful and rarely linear process, but it can strengthen people in unexpected ways. Many are able to transcend their hurt by providing help to others, and in doing so give direction to their waylaid lives.

Often people don’t know what they can endure until they face an unthinkable loss, says Steven Southwick, a psychiatry professor at Yale University. “Most of us are a lot more resilient than we think,” says Mr. Southwick, co-author with Dennis Charney, of “Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life’s Greatest Challenges.” We bend but don’t break, he says, like a green twig that bows in a gale but doesn’t snap. In spite of harsh weather and conditions, the twig grows, sometimes in a slightly different direction.

He and Mr. Charney came up with 10 traits of people who survived war, assault and disasters, as well as less traumatic events, and ultimately thrived. These people tend to be optimistic—thinking things will work out—and are able to accept what can’t be changed and focus on what can be, he says. They recognize that even though they didn’t have a choice in their loss, they are responsible for their own happiness.

Although genetics plays a role in being resilient, it isn’t a huge one. Resilience can be learned and enhanced, he says. For example, people can develop a more optimistic view by cultivating friendships with positive people and challenging negative thoughts.

“When you change the way you are viewing things, it has a pretty big impact on all sorts of things,” Mr. Southwick says. It isn’t easy to do, he acknowledges.

When her husband died, Ms. Moor had no family around to help with her two daughters, ages 2 and 4, and the couple’s interior architecture and design business. She had left her childhood home near Bryant, Ark., years earlier, and Chad’s family was in Colorado. Memories of the accident haunted her. She suffered panic attacks every time she heard a siren or saw a police car, and could no longer sleep in the bedroom she had shared with Chad.

Her strong Southern Baptist roots offered little comfort. Instead, she cursed the God she had always trusted.

“I thought my allotment of happiness had been used up and that the rest of life was one of duty,” she says. She went through the motions, getting her daughters out of bed, dressing and feeding them, and volunteered at a grief group called New Hope For Kids. “I put on a good face in public,” she says. Inside, she says, she was a wreck, not sure of what to do with her life. She met other widows at the grief group but didn’t know anyone who could show her how to move forward.

“If there is no one to remind you that optimism still exists and why, it’s really easy to let it slip through your fingers,” she says.

In 2006, six years after her husband died, she met Rabbi Shmuley Boteach. At the time, Rabbi Boteach, a prominent Orthodox Jewish rabbi and self-help author, was host of “Shalom in the Home,” a reality show that aired on TLC and featured him advising struggling families. He was filming a segment on grief in Orlando, and New Hope for Kids suggested he talk to Ms. Moor, among others. She and her daughters, Mackensey and Meagan, appeared on his show, and they became friends.

Ways to Enhance Optimism

When something bad happens:

When something good happens:

Source: ‘Resilience. The Science of Mastering Life’s Greatest Challenges’ By Steven M. Southwick and Dennis S. Charney

Ms. Moor remembers, in particular, one point in the show when Rabbi Boteach told her she had a choice. “You either choose life when death comes to your door or you choose something else,” she recalls him saying. It was one sentence, yet it touched her. She realized she couldn’t control what happened—fate made its move—but to some degree she could control her response.

Rabbi Boteach asked her to look at the choices she was making to see if they were the best for her and daughters. One stood out. Every year on Valentine’s Day, the anniversary of her husband’s death, she opened a memory box. Inside, along with her husband’s watch and architectural drawings, was a stained sweater that she had worn the night of the accident. It was, she reasoned, a way to honor her husband by never forgetting the pain of that day.

Doing so, though, left her—and her daughters—focused on Chad’s tragic end, rather than their happy times together.

With the show, a spate of publicity raised Ms. Moor’s profile. She appeared on Oprah Winfrey’s TV show during a segment on troubled families in which Rabbi Boteach counseled several sets of parents. Other widows began contacting her, looking to her for advice. She was overwhelmed, questioning her ability to help them and struggling with her own doubts that she had choices and deserved happiness. She was afraid of dating, fearing it would alienate her in-laws, and of selling things connected with Chad—their sports car and the house they had built. She went through five exhausting months of therapy, examining her fears and learning how to reframe her thinking.

“I had two little girls looking up to me,” she says. “I needed to find happiness and love again so they could have that in their lives.” Over time, she regained hope and began to move forward. She sold her house and bought a smaller one, giving her some added savings and security. She took her daughters on vacation to Maui and learned to surf. She began dating.

In 2010, while developing a website for her design business, she hired and befriended a young, newly widowed photographer. Over coffee at Starbucks, they decided to form the Modern Widows Club. Ms. Moor emailed local widows who had contacted her after the TV appearances, inviting them to her house on a Thursday evening.

Two showed up at that first meeting in 2011. Since then, 350 widows have attended Orlando meetings. The Modern Widows Club, a nonprofit, has grown to 10 chapters nationwide, with about 3,000 members.

They meet monthly in leaders’ homes or a local church. Leaders, all widowed at least two years, act as role models. The groups discuss their fears of being alone for the rest of their lives and practical issues about such as when to sell a house, start dating or remove a wedding ring. By seeing that others have quit jobs they hated, traveled alone and written books, they feel empowered.

Annette Vogel Little helps lead the chapter in the small town of Janesville, Wis. Ms. Little’s husband, Steve, suffered from depression and took his own life in 2005. At the time, she was 46 and their three children, ages 11, 15 and 16.

Ms. Little drew strength from her large family and her faith and, grateful for both, wanted to serve others. She volunteered at a homeless shelter but felt she would have greater impact mentoring other widows by sharing her story of what she came through and how. “I had healed enough and had enough to offer other people. I have come through a lot of losses and I’m more than OK,” says Ms. Little. “I have much more depth now.”

Searching the Internet, she found the Modern Widows website and contacted Ms. Moor about starting a chapter. Ms. Moor was struck by Ms. Little’s kindness and strength, traits she seeks in all chapter leaders. The first Janesville meeting was held in January 2014. About 20 widows ranging in age from 25 to 75 attended, some newly widowed and others widowed for more than a decade.

The widows in the group help each other realize that they can regain optimism, something that Ms. Moor spent years coming to believe. In turn and in time, they teach others. “The chain keeps going,” Ms. Moor says.

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