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How to Choose Hope and Build Resilience in the Face of Grief

Updated: Aug 24, 2020

This post is based on an Instagram Live interview with Riverbend Clinician and Reproductive Mental Health Specialist Nikki Walther and Jesie Steffes, LPC. Join us for Riverbend Therapy Chats each week on Instagram Live (@riverbendtherapy) as we discuss mental health topics and answer your questions.

Resilience has become a buzzword in our culture, and we want everything—from our architecture to our children—to be resilient. Often, we associate resilience with the ability to let difficult experiences roll off our backs, to quickly bounce back to “normal,” or to always find the silver lining in a tough situation.

That is not resilience. Being resilient doesn’t mean that we can’t let things hurt us, that we have to shut out our pain, bury our emotions, and “just move on.” For this week’s River Bend Therapy Chat on Instagram Live, our clinician Nikki Walther, LPCC, spoke with Jesie Steffes, LPC about building resilience in the face of difficulty—especially when experiencing infertility.

People experiencing infertility or other forms of deepest soul-level grief often get unhelpful “just” messages from well-meaning friends and family—just move on, just keep trying, just relax. Resilience, as Nikki and Jesie explained, is the opposite of that. Resilience says, “It’s OK that you’re not OK right now. You can feel broken, you can let this experience reduce you to ashes, and still believe that you can move through this pain in your own way and at your own pace.”

Maybe you’re thinking, “That sounds nice, but how can I move through my river of grief when the current is so strong that it’s taking all my energy just to not let it pull me under?” Simply the fact of standing in that river, or choosing to get back up if the current has knocked you down, is resilience. And each time you practice resilience it becomes easier to reach for the next time you’re in pain.

Resilience isn’t about big gestures—you don’t have to sign up for a triathlon or throw yourself into a demanding project at work or immediately start your next round of fertility treatments. Resilience is about acts of hope, and when you’re walking through a difficult season in your life, these can be as simple as:

→ Getting out of bed, even if you get back in five minutes later

→ Brushing your teeth or taking a shower

→ Doing a few gentle stretches

→ Sitting on the porch to feel the sun on your face

→ Remembering to be kind to yourself

Hope and resilience are intimately connected: believing that you can move through pain takes active hope. Hope isn’t a passive thing you either have or don’t. It’s not an emotion or a feeling. It’s a choice you make, a muscle you exercise. It comes, as noted above, from taking small steps, from doing the next right thing.

Sometimes, holding space for hope feels dangerous; we’re afraid of the pain we’ll feel if we “get our hopes up” and then are disappointed. And yes, unmet expectations can hurt. But the truth is that hope is never dangerous. In fact, the alternative to hope—continuing to live in fear—is pretty much guaranteed to cause us pain.

In the Therapy Chat, Nikki shared her own experiences with this. During a high-risk pregnancy, she was filled with anxiety and fear and was not able to enjoy being pregnant. She confided in Jesie about this, and Jesie helped her realize that being scared wouldn’t change the outcome of her pregnancy. Flexing the muscle of hope also wouldn’t change the outcome—but it could change her experience. For the remainder of her pregnancy, Nikki chose hope each day, allowing her to release her fear and enjoy the rest of the experience. After the fact, she realized that this approach was resilience.

In the midst of our deepest grief or strongest fear, hope may not be something we can exercise every day, and that’s OK. If you’re struggling to choose hope—to take small steps forward to build resilience—you can ask your loved ones to help you. We’ve talked before about the importance of giving your loved ones a blueprint for how to support you, and Jesie suggested asking a person or several people to be your “hope champions.” These people won’t pepper you with platitudes or toxic positivity, but will hold hope for you and will remind you of your resilience, remind you that hope is a muscle worth flexing.

In addition to friends and family, therapists are essentially professional hope champions; we regularly hold hope for our clients and help them strengthen that muscle as they discover their own resilience. If you think it would feel good to be supported this way, I encourage you to look into the groups we are starting here at River Bend. Both our Women’s Empowerment Group and our Infertility Support Group—will be spaces where you can build your capacity for hope and resilience, and each group will be a place for women to feel seen and heard, and to discover and share their authentic selves.

The Women’s Empowerment Group begins this Thursday, August 25th and will run for 10 weeks. Anyone who identifies as a woman can participate and although space is limited there is still time to fill out an interest form if you’re curious! The Infertility Support Group will start September 10th and run for eight weeks, and is for women who are experiencing infertility or have in the past, no matter how long ago. Space will also be limited in that group, so if you are interested please fill out an interest form as soon as possible. You can also contact us by email, on Facebook, and via Instagram if you need additional information—all questions welcome!

What action will you take today to exercise hope and build your resilience?

~ Brooke

Check out Nikki and Jesie's complete conversation about building resilience here!

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