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  • Transcriber: Ivana Korom Reviewer: Joanna Pietrulewicz

  • So I'd like to start, if I may, by asking you some questions.

  • If you've ever lost someone you truly love,

  • ever had your heart broken,

  • ever struggled through an acrimonious divorce,

  • or been the victim of infidelity,

  • please stand up.

  • If standing up isn't accessible to you, you can put your hand up.

  • Please, stay standing,

  • and keep your hand up there.

  • If you've ever lived through a natural disaster,

  • been bullied or been made redundant,

  • stand on up.

  • If you've ever had a miscarriage,

  • if you've ever had an abortion

  • or struggled through infertility,

  • please stand up.

  • Finally, if you, or anyone you love,

  • has had to cope with mental illness, dementia,

  • some form of physical impairment,

  • or cope with suicide,

  • please stand up.

  • Look around you.

  • Adversity doesn't discriminate.

  • If you are alive,

  • you are going to have to, or you've already had to,

  • deal with some tough times.

  • Thank you, everyone, take a seat.

  • I started studying resilience research a decade ago,

  • at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

  • It was an amazing time to be there,

  • because the professors who trained me

  • had just picked up the contract to train all 1.1 million American soldiers

  • to be as mentally fit as they always have been physically fit.

  • As you can imagine,

  • you don't get a much more skeptical discerning audience

  • than the American drill sergeants returning from Afganistan.

  • So for someone like me,

  • whose main quest in life is trying to work out

  • how we take the best of scientific findings out of academia

  • and bring them to people in their everyday lives,

  • it was a pretty inspiring place to be.

  • I finished my studies in America,

  • and I returned home here to Christchurch

  • to start my doctoral research.

  • I'd just begun that study

  • when the Christchurch earthquakes hit.

  • So I put my research on hold,

  • and I started working with my home community

  • to help them through that terrible post-quake period.

  • I worked with all sorts of organizations

  • from government departments to building companies,

  • and all sorts of community groups,

  • teaching them the ways of thinking and acting

  • that we know boost resilience.

  • I thought that was my calling.

  • My moment to put all of that research to good use.

  • But sadly, I was wrong.

  • For my own true test came in 2014

  • on Queen's Birthday weekend.

  • We and two other families had decided

  • to go down to Lake Ohau and bike the outs to ocean.

  • At the last minute,

  • my beautiful 12-year-old daughter Abi

  • decided to hop in the car with her best friend, Ella, also 12,

  • and Ella's mom, Sally, a dear, dear friend of mine.

  • On the way down, as they traveled through Rakaia

  • on Thompsons Track,

  • a car sped through a stop sign,

  • crashing into them

  • and killing all three of them instantly.

  • In the blink of an eye,

  • I find myself flung to the other side of the equation,

  • waking up with a whole new identity.

  • Instead of being the resilience expert,

  • suddenly, I'm the grieving mother.

  • Waking up not knowing who I am,

  • trying to wrap my head around unthinkable news,

  • my world smashed to smithereens.

  • Suddenly, I'm the one on the end of all this expert advice.

  • And I can tell you,

  • I didn't like what I heard one little bit.

  • In the days after Abi died,

  • we were told we were now prime candidates for family estrangement.

  • That we were likely to get divorced

  • and we were at high risk of mental illness.

  • "Wow," I remember thinking,

  • "Thanks for that, I though my life was already pretty shit."

  • (Laughter)

  • Leaflets described the five stages of grief:

  • anger, bargaining, denial, depression, acceptance.

  • Victim support arrived at our door

  • and told us that we could expect to write off the next five years to grief.

  • I know the leaflets and the resources meant well.

  • But in all of that advice,

  • they left us feeling like victims.

  • Totally overwhelmed by the journey ahead,

  • and powerless to exert any influence over our grieving whatsoever.

  • I didn't need to be told how bad things were.

  • Believe me, I already knew things were truly terrible.

  • What I needed most was hope.

  • I needed a journey through all that anguish,

  • pain and longing.

  • Most of all,

  • I wanted to be an active participant in my grief process.

  • So I decided to turn my back on their advice

  • and decided instead to conduct something of a self-experiment.

  • I'd done the research, I had the tools,

  • I wanted to know how useful they would be to me now

  • in the face of such an enormous mountain to climb.

  • Now, I have to confess at this point,

  • I didn't really know that any of this was going to work.

  • Parental bereavement is widely acknowledged

  • as the hardest of losses to bear.

  • But I can tell you now, five years on,

  • what I already knew from the research.

  • That you can rise up from adversity,

  • that there are strategies that work,

  • that it is utterly possible

  • to make yourself think and act in certain ways

  • that help you navigate tough times.

  • There is a monumental body of research on how to do this stuff.

  • Today, I'm just going to share with you three strategies.

  • These are my go-to strategies that I relied upon

  • and saved me in my darkest days.

  • They're three strategies that underpin all of my work,

  • and they're pretty readily available to us all,

  • anyone can learn them,

  • you can learn them right here today.

  • So number one,

  • resilient people get that shit happens.

  • They know that suffering is part of life.

  • This doesn't mean they actually welcome it in,

  • they're not actually delusional.

  • Just that when the tough times come,

  • they seem to know

  • that suffering is part of every human existence.

  • And knowing this stops you from feeling discriminated against

  • when the tough times come.

  • Never once did I find myself thinking,

  • "Why me?"

  • In fact, I remember thinking,

  • "Why not me?

  • Terrible things happen to you,

  • just like they do everybody else.

  • That's your life now,

  • time to sink or swim."

  • The real tragedy

  • is that not enough of us seem to know this any longer.

  • We seem to live in an age

  • where we're entitled to a perfect life,

  • where shiny, happy photos on Instagram are the norm,

  • when actually,

  • as you all demonstrated at the start of my talk,

  • the very opposite is true.

  • Number two,

  • resilient people

  • are really good at choosing carefully where they select their attention.

  • They have a habit of realistically appraising situations,

  • and typically, managing to focus on the things that they can change,

  • and somehow accept the things that they can't.

  • This is a vital, learnable skill for resilience.

  • As humans, we are really good

  • at noticing threats and weaknesses.

  • We are hardwired for that negative.

  • We're really, really good at noticing them.

  • Negative emotions stick to us like Velcro,

  • whereas positive emotions and experiences seems to bounce off like Teflon.

  • Being wired in this way is actually really good for us,

  • and served us well from an evolutionary perspective.

  • So imagine for a moment I'm a cavewoman,

  • and I'm coming out of my cave in the morning,

  • and there's a saber-toothed tiger on one side

  • and a beautiful rainbow on the other.

  • It kind of pays for my survival for me to notice this tiger.

  • The problem is,

  • we now live in an era where we are constantly bombarded

  • by threats all day long,

  • and our poor brains treat every single one of those threats

  • as though they were a tiger.

  • Our threat focus, our stress response,

  • is permanently dialed up.

  • Resilient people don't diminish the negative,

  • but they also have worked out a way

  • of tuning into the good.

  • One day, when doubts were threatening to overwhelm me,

  • I distinctly remember thinking,

  • "No, you do not get to get swallowed up by this.

  • You have to survive.

  • You've got so much to live for.

  • Choose life, not death.

  • Don't lose what you have

  • to what you have lost."

  • In psychology, we call this benefit finding.

  • In my brave new world,

  • it involved trying to find things to be grateful for.

  • At least our wee girl

  • hadn't died of some terrible, long, drawn-out illness.

  • She died suddenly, instantly,

  • sparing us and her that pain.

  • We had a huge amount of social support from family and friends

  • to help us through.

  • And most of all,

  • we still had two beautiful boys to live for,

  • who needed us now,

  • and deserved to have as normal a life as we could possibly give them.

  • Being able to switch the focus of your attention

  • to also include the good

  • has been shown by science to be a really powerful strategy.

  • So in 2005, Martin Seligman and colleagues conducted an experiment.

  • And they asked people, all they asked people to do,

  • was think of three good things that had happened to them each day.

  • What they found, over the six months course of this study,

  • was that those people showed higher levels of gratitude,

  • higher levels of happiness

  • and less depression over the course of the six-month study.

  • When you're going through grief,

  • you might need a reminder,

  • or you might need permission to feel grateful.

  • In our kitchen, we've got a bright pink neon poster

  • that reminds us to "accept" the good.

  • In the American army,

  • they framed it a little bit differently.

  • They talked to the army about hunting the good stuff.

  • Find the language that works for you,

  • but whatever you do,

  • make an intentional, deliberate, ongoing effort

  • to tune into what's good in your world.

  • Number three,

  • resilient people ask themselves,

  • "Is what I'm doing helping or harming me?"

  • This is a question that's used a lot in good therapy.

  • And boy, is it powerful.

  • This was my go-to question

  • in the days after the girls died.

  • I would ask it again and again.

  • "Should I go to the trial and see the driver?

  • Would that help me or would it harm me?"

  • Well, that was a no-brainer for me,

  • I chose to stay away.

  • But Trevor, my husband, decided to meet with the driver

  • at a later time.

  • Late at night, I'd find myself sometimes poring over old photos of Abi,

  • getting more and more upset.

  • I'd ask myself,

  • "Really? Is this helping you or is it harming you?

  • Put away the photos,

  • go to bed for the night,