A plan for thriving, developed by two women who chose to swim, not sink
How can we not only survive but thrive in the face of the stuff life throws at us? Whether they’re big things or little, how do we stop them stopping us from living our best life? Two inspiring Cape Town women who are still standing following extreme loss have harnessed what they’ve learnt to help others track down joy. Here’s a sneak preview of their new workshop which can be used by anyone, including parents keen to nurture resilience in their children. Don’t miss out on these insights!
WATCH PIPPA AND GABI: ‘Being resilient allows you to have a rich life’
Gabi Lowe’s daughter Jenna was diagnosed with primary pulmonary hypertension in 2012. She lived for several years on supplemental oxygen, became the face driving organ donation in South Africa and eventually received a lung transplant. But after six months in ICU, at the age of 20, she died. Shortly afterwards, Gabi’s husband Stuart was diagnosed with bone marrow cancer which he is keeping at bay.
Pippa Shaper has lost her daughter Lucy to illness, her son Jack to a car accident, and her sister and first husband Hal to cancer. Her first daughter Pia has a syndrome which affects her sight and mobility.
SO WHAT IS RESILIENCE, AND WHY DO WE NEED IT?
GABI: ‘I used to believe that if you work hard enough, try hard enough, do enough, you’ll protect yourself or those you love from suffering. That’s not true, suffering is part of life and you can’t protect yourself from it. However, what you can do is equip yourself and those around you to cope.
Will building your resilience mean you don’t have pain? No. Will it mean you don’t have negative thoughts? No. There are some days when I hide under my duvet and cannot face the world, but to me true resilience is fluid, it allows you to be in a dark place and know that you’ll find the strength to get up again tomorrow because you’ve done it before.
resilient people have common characteristics
Everyone needs resilience even for the normal things that life throws your way, let alone loss and trauma. Pippa and I are fascinated by what makes some people more able to deal with stuff than others. Resilience is very complex and dynamic, but there are some common characteristics that we’ve put together to form the basis of our workshop. We call them the ‘10 Rs’.
We don’t believe resilience is about bouncing back. When you go through loss, transition and change you don’t go back to where you were before. If you expect to do that, you’ll only be disappointed: you can’t unsee what you’ve seen or unfeel what you’ve felt. We believe it’s about incorporating all your experiences, good and difficult, into who you are to find a new way of being. You might need one or all of our 10 tools at any one time. You’ll need to keep taking them out of the toolbox and using them, developing them, working with them.’
THE FIRST R: REALITY
GABI: ‘When a challenge comes, people tend towards one of two reactions: denial or drama. They either catastrophise: ‘This is going to destroy my life’, or they go into denial and push it away: ‘It’s all going to be fine’. Both responses immobilise us and reduce our ability to deal with what’s in front of us. What we need to do is take responsibility for our emotions, face the situation head on and find reality somewhere in the middle of those two extremes: literally stare down the brutal truth. That done, we can work towards being realistically optimistic about our options, which is the glass half-full approach: finding the realistic positive while not denying the negative. This is the balance that resilient people manage to find.
I got to this conclusion through years of ongoing trauma with Jenna’s lung disease. I learnt very slowly, like a frog being heated in tepid water, that if I was going to be able to cope I had to keep coming back to reality and staying with the ‘now’, with what we were dealing with that day. For the year before Jenna’s lung transplant, I had to mix vital medication every day (a 35-step sterile process) for the infusion that went directly into her right heart chamber. It couldn’t be done in advance. If anything went wrong with the pump, there was only 3 ½ minutes to sort it out. If I’d allowed myself to live in the potential drama of that, I’d have been finished. I had to stay calm and in the moment. Similarly if I went into denial, I put her life at risk.
Don’t panic or go into denial: stay with reality, say Gabi and Pippa. And make sure you’re laughing enough! | Photo: Nicky Elliott
GABI, continued: ‘Say your husband has just had a car accident and you get a call. The tendency is to jump straight into terrifying assumptions: ‘We can’t afford the hospital bill, insurance might not pay, he won’t be able to work, this is a disaster’. When we do this, we’re unable to respond in any way that’s helpful. The only thing to do is be really disciplined with yourself about staying with the facts, avoid the assumptions: Where are we at right now?
Conversely, denial is just as dangerous. Simply to tell yourself everything is going to be okay is also not helpful: you do need to act and sort things out! Denial can happen so quickly that we don’t even know we’re doing it. As humans we battle with pain, have become good at avoiding it and deny it in order to cope. Our fear of disappointment, pain and loss can make us avoid reality. Instead, try to say to yourself: ‘Okay, what do we need right now? How are we going to put things in place? What can I do and change right now?’ Make a call, get someone to pick up the kids, call a friend with a medical aid contact, put plans in place with what you know for sure. If you don’t go into drama or denial, there’s space to be resilient and face the adversity. To respond calmly and consciously.
Throughout your life, keep checking in with reality. If I’m a teen girl walking into a classroom and I see someone whispering, I may assume, ‘It’s about me, I’m not part of the group, in five years’ time I won’t have a single friend’. That reaction isn’t based in reality. The chances are the whispering has nothing to do with you and you’ve created your own version of reality. By letting your imagination run wild, by making assumptions, you’re actually making it worse and becoming a victim of your own doing. You may even be adding to the drama and making that situation actually happen.
How to stare down reality? You have to be able to sit with pain, loss, disappointment, the brutal truth and face it head on. After Jenna’s diagnosis, we moved towards the truth of her situation in little bits. I would sit with a medical dictionary and research as much as my psyche could hold, then process it.
let go of the way things ‘should be’
We also had family therapy and found a space for us to get together and talk, taking it in turns just to speak and not interrupt each other or make suggestions. This bonded us as a family and though we didn’t realise it at the time, it was building capacity for sitting with trauma. As a family, we spoke about everything, there was nothing unsaid between us till the day Jenna died. One of the very difficult things she said to me was, ‘The weird thing about waiting for a transplant is that you don’t know if you’re preparing to live or preparing to die’. How do you respond to that as a mother? I had to let go of the way I thought things should be and deal with how they actually were.
LEFT The Lowe family before Jenna’s diagnosis (from left: Jenna, Gabi, Stewart and Kristi).
RIGHT The Shaper family (from left: Jack, Hal (Pippa’s first husband), Pia, Pippa, Lucy and Harry)
PIPPA: ‘When your children tell you something upsetting it’s very helpful to get them to do a reality check. ‘What actually happened/did someone say to you? What can you do now?’ If it really is a genuine issue, suggest that they write down what they’re feeling – and stick with what they actually know! As a mother, when your child is in a state you need to do your own reality check. Face it but don’t dramatise it!
When my first husband Hal was diagnosed with cancer, there was no doubt it was terminal, and we faced up to this. Some friends and family told us to fight it, which made our job more difficult, but accepting it enabled us to start talking about our finances, our time together, the future. The same happened when my mum was diagnosed with cancer. I’m so grateful that we were real with each other. It was such a privilege to enjoy her last weeks with her.’
THE SECOND R: REACH IN (TO YOUR EMOTIONS)
PIPPA: ‘I went through the birth of my daughter Pia who was born with a severe abnormaility, the death of my other daughter Lucy and finally my husband Hal without deeply engaging with my emotions. Only a year after Hal died did I seek out therapy. Being British, it can be hard being seen to be emotional! As a result of not dealing with it for so many years, anger came out. It would have been a lot easier if I’d unpacked my feelings at the time. Once you’ve acknowledged an emotion you can respond. You don’t have to wallow in it, but finding it helps you move on.’
bringing things into the light
GABI: ‘I believe facing your emotions is the only way to build resilience. It’s tempting not to. That girl feeling left out in the classroom needs to ask herself how she is feeling and why. Her fear is probably not about others talking about her, but about Am I good enough? If you don’t face what’s really going on it will hunt you down. Avoiding feelings can lead to anxiety, disconnect and depression. You might bury your feelings in a box in the cellar, but that box just gets bigger and bigger! You have to bring things out into the light.
build in structure
Half the battle is finding out what and why you’re feeling something. Don’t be afraid to drill down into the emotion. Emotions don’t kill us: vulnerability builds courage. Once you see it, you’re usually able to face it, understand it and move forward. We’re all different but I’ve learnt that I personally default to being really busy and taking on too much, so if I’m hectic I now know I must stop and ask myself: What emotion am I not dealing with? What am I avoiding?’
In terms of my own grief, sometimes I must hide for a day and weep but you can’t stay in that level of despair for too long. Put structure and purpose into your life, have a plan, even if it’s just going for a walk, you will shift it.
The Jenna Lowe Trust which Gabi and her family founded to support organ transplantation, pulmonary hypertension and rare diseases
THE THIRD R: RATIO
GABI: ‘Ratio is about gratitude, having purpose and seeing the bigger picture. Psychology professor John Gottman claims to predict the success of a marriage by measuring the interactions of a couple: five positive ones to one negative one means the marriage will last!
you’ve got to work at it
Research indicates that to build resilience you need more gratitude than self-pity, more hope than despair. You’ll find a silver lining even in the worst of circumstances if you reach in but you have to work at it, it’s not going to land in your lap. You’ve got to hunt it down, find and expand your unique interests. They don’t have to be lofty thing: simply connecting with people and encouraging them is a great goal!
A resilient person will be weighted towards the positive. Let’s say I do a marathon and tear my Achilles tendon. If I’m resilient, I’ll find purpose in that event, maybe I’ll have more time to spend with my kids or something else happens that I can find value in. I can’t undo the fact of the tearing of the Achilles but I can find the value and meaning in what’s happened.
Levity is important in the ratio. When Jenna was ill, ours was not a sick house. There was laughter. Every day we found a way to have gratitude and joy: the friends visiting (albeit with gloves and masks on), the teen pre-drinks happening at our house. Every evening we lit candles and tracked down joy. We allowed it.
The whole time we had to recalibrate and be creative with what we had. Jenna taught me so much because she knew how to access gratitude in the most heinous of circumstances. We found ways to make ICU not such a dark place, moving furniture around, colouring in pictures to put up on the walls, writing the nurses’ names down so we could thank them properly.
A year after Jenna had her lung transplant, Stuart had a bone marrow transplant. He was supposed to stay inside all the time to prevent infection but one day he said ‘I just need daylight’ and I knew he did. Because we’d spent so long in hospital with Jenna, we knew how to close off the drip and walked out of hospital giggling because the nurses’ mouths were wide open in shock.
do your child a favour
There’s lots we can do to help our children build resilience. When we overprotect them because we can’t bear their pain, we don’t do them any favours. Our younger daughter Kristi barely got out of bed for five months after Jenna died. One of the bravest things we did was listen to her therapist, let her stay home, feel those feelings and find her own way. She eventually went back into school to do her final matric exams and has found her strength and flown.’
Home for Home, a foster care organisation that Pippa cofounded, currently provides 36 foster homes for orphaned and vulnerable South African children
PIPPA: ‘Gratitude and perspective are very important. When Hal was dying I had to get him out of bed and change the sheets in the middle of the night. I went back to bed feeling profoundly grateful for resources I had to be able to help him. Coincidentally, the organisation I worked for was building a hospice in Khayelitsha at that very time. I was so aware that while I was going through this, there were loads of women also caring for their dying husbands who didn’t have spare sheets or a washing machine like I did – or someone to come in the next morning to help me. Being able to keep a perspective on my own situation has been so important.
these are biblical principles
A gratitude journal really helps to write down these things at the end of every day. I couldn’t have processed my emotions without writing my journey. But, for me, underlying all the ‘Rs’ of resilience is God. Each of them stack up against His principles and I can find a biblical example for them all. If you don’t have a faith, it’s good nonetheless to find a sense of purpose and a sense of there being something much bigger than you. If you simply judge by the here and now, it can be pretty awful! Finding purpose in your life right now helps future-proof you against challenges that may come.’
KEEN TO KNOW MORE ABOUT THESE TWO EXTRAORDINARY WOMEN?
Read Pippa’s full story here
Discover Home From Home, the foster home organisation that Pippa co-founded: www.homefromhome.org.za
For info about the foundation founded by Gabi and her family to support organ transplantation, rare diseases and pulmonary hypertension, go to www.jennalowe.org