My youngest daughter, Hannah, is starting 6th Form today and my eldest daughter, Charlie, is going to University in under two weeks' time. As a new chapter begins for our family, I find myself pondering the joys we have shared, the tears we have shed, and the resilience we have developed over the years.
My Facebook timeline keeps popping up little reminders of my blog posts from two years ago, when Hannah had just had her second open heart surgery and was returning to school, eager to get going with her GCSE studies and get one step closer to her dream of becoming a paediatric cardio-thoracic surgeon.
Reading through those blog posts is bitter-sweet. We shed so many tears - of sadness, of worry and of joy - during that time, but we also laughed a lot and cherished it as a special time together. Both my daughters were born with rare, complex and life-threatening heart conditions. Both have had out of hospital cardiac arrests. Our lives have been a rollercoaster of emotions and we have become very good at compartmentalising, at worrying when we need to worry and grabbing life with both hands the rest of the time.
So what makes us so resilient? How do we keep bouncing back? Well, the great news is that the things we have been doing as a family are really simple and easy to replicate. You can do them, too, and I promise you, they will make it easier to bear the challenges life throws at you.
Our family is noisy and our house is full of laughter (as well as, as you would expect with two teenage girls and a fiery Italian-German mother, lots of shouting, arguing and general chaos!). Even when Hannah was in hospital, we found something to laugh about most days and I recorded this in my blog. I wanted to make sure there was something funny to read back over when I re-read my blogs. I wanted our memories of hospital to be about more than the dramas, the setbacks and the worries. It helps not to take everything too seriously and, actually, there is often great comedy in life's most dramatic moments. Don't fight those moments of hilarity, go with them and let yourself enjoy them.
Charlie and Hannah having fun together in hospital after Hannah's heart surgery, August 2014
Hugging is fantastic. It makes us feel loved and secure. One of the reasons for this is that it releases Oxytocin, often known as the 'bonding molecule'. Oxytocin is a neurotransmitter and a hormone often linked to relationships and intimacy. It makes us feel good and can boost our mood. So hug the people you love, and hug your pets, particularly dogs, as this can have a similar mood-boosting effect.
Sometimes life throws you challenges that are upsetting and the natural response is to cry. Trying to stop the tears and be stoic is not going to help you or anyone else around you in the long run. Suppressing your feelings will only store up trouble in the longer term.
When Charlie had a cardiac arrest at the age of 12, we thought we would lose her. I remember crying a lot at first, when it happened, and then going into auto-pilot, getting through one day at a time. Once she got better, I was so relieved, so grateful, that I almost felt like I wasn't entitled to also feel upset and angry that this had happened in the first place. After a few months, I realised I was re-living the morning of Charlie's cardiac arrest, in continuous loop, every morning, to the point where it became debilitating. I had palpitations every time I heard an ambulance. I was stuck in a horrible moment in time and, much as I wanted to, I didn't let myself cry because I worried that once I started, I would never be able to stop. I was very lucky because the hospital where my daughter was treated offered us all access to a psychologist, so I asked for help. The psychologist told me I had PTSD and she helped me process my feelings. On the first anniversary of the cardiac arrest, both my daughters came into my bed for a cuddle before school, as they did most days, and I held them really tight and cried. After that day, I was fine and the daily flashbacks stopped.
Lots of research has gone into the power of crying and of the tears themselves. Crying is good for us. So don't bottle things up.
We look for and appreciate the good
Even when you are going through major challenges in life, there are still good things that happen all around you. The world doesn't stop and if you pay attention and look for small positive things to notice, you will notice them. When Hannah was in hospital two years ago, we prepared for the surgery by having a mother/daughter week of going to the cinema, shopping for pyjamas and slippers for hospital, watching films together at home and generally spending as much time together as possible. Once she started getting better, in hospital, we watched DVDs together, my eldest daughter Charlie and I went to the cinema while my husband stayed with Hannah, my husband and I went for the occasional meal while other family members stayed with Hannah...we carved out enjoyable moments to make that difficult time more bearable.
As well as blogging every day, I also wrote in my gratitude diary every morning. Dr Martin Seligman has done a lot of research into gratitude and his '3 good things' experiment is particularly powerful. By writing down 3 good things, every day (along with why those things are important to you / why you are grateful for them), can have a phenomenal positive impact on your happiness levels. Try it - I promise it will transform your life for the better!
I am not special, and neither is my family. We have just learnt, over time, what works for us, and it turns out much of what we were doing is backed by research and works for lots of other people, too. These four keys to resilience are simple and you can use them, too.
This article was originally published on the RWS website on 6th September 2016.