The Worst Nightmare


“There’s an ambulance at Vickie’s house,” my husband said. We frowned at each other. Vickie and her family had been our friends for years. I met her at the bus stop when we were the new family in town. I looked forward to her smiling face in the morning, as we shivered in the cold in our sweatpants, waiting for the bus to come. No one was sick in Vickie’s young and healthy family. Why would an ambulance be at her house?

I got a text from another neighbor and gasped. “I can’t even say this.” Doug looked at me, somberly. “Ben died.” Ben was her middle-school aged son. He died suddenly from an undiagnosed medical condition. I ran over to Vickie’s, where people were gathering. The house was already full of members from her church. We stood in shock, contemplating how a vibrant young boy can be here and then so shockingly gone. I worried about Vickie. How could she survive this catastrophe, everyone’s worst nightmare? How could she survive Ben’s death?

Here’s the thing: years later, Vickie is thriving. Of course, she was beside herself with grief in the beginning. Her face looked shocked, stunned, empty. She was like that for months. She wore blue every day to honor Ben; it was his favorite color. She planted a tree at his school. And slowly but surely, she arose from her crushing grief, even kinder than before.

The research on resilience could explain some of Vickie’s strength. Resilience is associated with intelligence, spirituality, and community support. Resilience is associated with internal locus of control: a person’s sense that they can make their own life better, rather than passively waiting to be helped or rescued. Resilience is associated with a sense of humor, and with family support. Resilience is associated with a person’s capacity to make meaning out of their experiences. Vickie has all those traits. She is smart, funny, religious, well-loved, and highly capable. Vickie herself gives credit for her strength to God and the living angels around her, who supported her and lifted her up.

Life devastates us and yet we rise again. It is possible to survive one’s worst nightmare, and still be functioning, capable, deeply kind and warm. Tragedy can deepen us, mature us, and even make us better people. But this doesn’t always happen. Some people are felled by tragedy, stuck in unending bitterness and helplessness, wailing against their fate forever.

What has helped you keep going? What questions do you have about resilience? Please let me know. I would like to help as many of us be like Vickie as we can be. She is still herself but maybe even better: even more warm, kind, empathic and true. She is a marvel.




© 2020. Lise Deguire, Psy.D.  All rights reserved.

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