Elizabeth Edwards: Lessons about Resilience

Since her book, Resilience, was published, the media spotlight has been on Elizabeth Edwards’ promotional tour. It’s her husband’s affair and how she’s handling the aftermath that gets the most press coverage. The pundits have been after her – some expressing compassion, others compassion fatigue.  But it’s the other life challenges she has faced that most symbolize her inner strength and resilience.

Personal pain – on display for all to see – has been played out before in the political arena. But Elizabeth Edwards really does have something to say about handling adversity – she has suffered through the loss of her teenage son in a car accident, the recent death of her parents and her ongoing struggle with cancer. Her decision to talk about these issues is very complicated. Wanting to leave a legacy for her children is one reason to speak out in public. And with her courage as a role model, she’s demonstrating to others that they can get through their pain.

As Sandwiched Boomers, your issues may not be as dramatic. But you’re likely dealing with aging parents and growing children, perhaps marital problems or your own health concerns. Working through the impact of such changes is important to the well being of your family in flux and to yourself. Any crisis in the family is usually accompanied by heightened and mixed emotions. The following five tips can help as you make efforts to manage the difficult times:

1. It’s often hard to fathom what you have to give up when there are family problems. Is it feelings of control and invulnerability, your sense of identity or wellbeing, expectations of what the future will hold? Try to understand your complex emotions and then explain the depth of them to those who care most about you.

2. If your parents are ailing or your children are struggling, you may be fearful of what could happen. It makes sense that you would pull back in order to protect yourself. Unfortunately emotional distancing can feel like rejection, further complicating the circumstances. Although talking about what you are afraid of isn’t easy, it can eventually bring you closer to your loved ones.

3. Remind yourself to look at what’s going on from others’ perspectives as well as your own. It’s painful to see family members feeling vulnerable or distressed, but try to put yourself in their shoes. Question whether how you’re handling the situation is more for their benefit or for yours. And figure out together what it is that you need from each other.

4. It’s important to keep communication open and honest. You may not want to face what’s going on directly, hoping that everything will be OK. But this way of coping can look to others like you’re not interested. Try to talk things over before anyone in the family begins to feel upset, misunderstood or angry. Practice the conversational etiquette and active listening skills that you know well.

5. If you have negative feelings, consider whether you’re being overly sensitive or easy to anger, and what that may be about. Express yourself and then let go of any resentment. Learn to forgive and to apologize for any mistakes you’ve made. Holding on just makes it worse for everyone involved.

Is what Elizabeth Edwards is doing the best for her family and herself? Maybe not. Although you’d never know it from the media’s emphasis, her husband’s affair is only one part of her life story. Some say revenge is a dish best served cold. But she may be seeking something more profound than vengeance. Her breast cancer has metastasized and Edwards may be taking hold of the power she does have. Perhaps she’s claiming something for herself – presenting the details of a life that mattered, on her own terms.

Perspective is valuable, whether you’re hit in the face with a crisis, adjusting to changes in your family or making a transition into the next chapter of your life. A cascade of feelings is normal – anxiety, the desire to hold on, resentment, sadness, fear, even a sense of freedom. If, like Elizabeth Edwards, you have the fortitude to step back, take a deep breath and face the situation squarely, you can’t help but grow from the challenges.

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