Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Fall Down/Get Up? The Cult of Resilience

“Some people fall down and they lie there for the rest of their lives,” says Naomi Newman in a quirky performance piece about dealing with hard times. “But some people learn to fall down/get up. Now that is one move” she gestures, sweeping her arm down and back up: “fall down/get up.” The audience laughs and applauds her spunk.

Our society venerates the “fall down/get up” impulse, the spirit that fights against all odds. It’s part of our can-do, raise-yourself-by-your-bootstraps, get-back-in-the-saddle cultural mythology. We worship resilience of the bounce-back variety. And that’s fine for dealing with many of life’s trials.

I wish everyone who struggles, including those who die by suicide, could cultivate resilience. I wish everyone could be given tools for that from a young age. 

But for those who've lost loved ones to suicide, the cult of resilience can be a harsh taskmaster. We survivors know how it feels to fall down and lie there after traumatic loss, likely the worst loss we will ever encounter. Some of us fear we’ll never get up again. When we do, we’re saluted for a strength we may not feel; when we don’t, we’re prodded to just put one foot in front of the other. The pressure to move on, when applied too soon or too often, can silence our grief.    

When I lost my son, Noah, to suicide, I was blasted apart by the shock and pain. I fell into a pit, weighed down by a morass of grief, guilt, shame, trauma. I had to fight just to get my head above water and breathe. Everything I thought I knew or believed had been shattered. I wrote and blogged out of a fierce need to tell my story and recover a sense of meaning and agency.

With time, I’d notice bits of healing but then be swamped by another grief wave. There was no clear destination for the journey. I was living, like many survivors, in a liminal space between my griefworld and the “normal” world where life went on as before. I was moving back and forth between a loss orientation, focused on mourning, and a restoration orientation, focused on returning to life.

I’m lucky that no one rushed me to snap out of it and resume my place in the world. I’m lucky I had the outlet of this blog, where I could confront Noah’s suicide on my own terms and bear honest witness to my experience, without worrying about healing. I’m convinced that taking my time over the first three years to fully explore and express my grief allowed me to move toward post-traumatic growth (positive changes that arise after processing trauma)--and ultimately, to write a grief memoir that offers hope and inspiration to other survivors.
Experts Tedeschi and Calhoun say that the more resilient people are, as in easily bouncing back from setbacks, the less likely they are to go through the “cognitive processing” (deliberate, reflective rumination) needed for transformative post-traumatic growth. Finding resolution too quickly after trauma can shut down the potential for growth—that is, positive changes in how we relate to others, see the world, and view our own strength.

So with all due respect to the tough-minded fighters out there, I hope we can bring more patience and empathy to those who, after a terrible fall, get up in their own way, in their own time.

To my fellow survivors: I hope you have as much time as you need to be with your grief. If there are days or weeks when you feel lost and need to wallow in your sorrow, that’s OK (and if you have pressing work and/or care-giving duties, hopefully you can get some help and take some time off). If you finally get up only to fall down again, that’s normal. What matters is to listen to your heart, reach out for support, and know that things will get better with time. Try to find people who will listen and help you understand rather than pressure you to move on. It’s by attending to our griefwork that we build authentic inner strength to move forward—when we are ready.


  1. Thank you for sharing your experience. I read your book shortly after we lost our 14 year old son to suicide in March of last year and have been reading your blog. Even though we don’t know each other and live different lives, we share this unfortunate path though life. I just want you to know that you are an inspiration. I feel like the unluckiest/luckiest mother. Our loss of our eldest son came as a complete shock and could have forever devistated our family’s life. Although, we knew of our son, Sidney’s struggles, never ever did we ever think suicide was a way out. We are a very close family, we talk, we helped our sweet boy as much as we knew how. He loved life, he loved us and we love him, I feel that unconditional love trumps the guilt of the could’ve, should’ve, would’ves...We always got though the tough times, with much strength and always came out stronger than before. I feel if we could’ve gotten him through the tough stage of adolescence, Sidney would have an amazing impact in this world. He was intensely smart and determined in what ever he put his mind to. Though,I believe his own struggles would always be with him. I am grateful for the time we had him in our lives and miss him terribly so, but I just recently feel that I am able to accept our tragedy and move on to our “new normal “. Soon after Sidney’s death, my husband and I made the easy decision to move back home, from Minnesota to Memphis. We needed to be surrounded by family, friends and our Jewish community here in Tennessee. We have 3 other children, 13,5 and 2, that are ( I’m not sure how,but, seem to be doing as ok as ok can be. We talk about Sidney often and keep him alive in spirit. I hope to keep this new strength that I’ve just recently acquired forever with me and our family. Though, as I’m sure you know better than me, there will be times I won’t, and that’s ok. I let myself have bad days, hours, minutes. They are plenty, I’m also learning that there are also good days, times and minutes and I’m learning that’s ok too. Thank you for making your story heard and I am so sorry for the loss of your sweet and precious son. Be who you are and be blessed in all who you are. Love , Larissa

    1. Hi Larissa and thank you for sharing your story. I am so sorry for the loss of your Sidney, who sounds like he was a special guy. How wonderful that your family continues to talk about him and that your other kids seem to be OK. Honoring both the good days and the bad -- you've come a long way in your grief in less than a year. March is also the death anniversary for our family so I will be thinking of you. As you approach this first year anniversary, I hope you have a plan for a way to mark the day and that whatever you do brings you and your family comfort and strength for the way forward. Feel free to keep in touch privately via email (see About This Blog page). Take good care of yourself every day. In shared sorrow, Susan