When I first ran across “Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life’s Greatest Challenges,” by Steven M. Southwick and Dennis S. Charney, I thought it could be the ultimate book of evidence-based grief coping strategies. Written by a couple of medical doctors, chock full of references to hundreds of scientific papers, what could be better?


In fact, I do have a few criticisms of “Resilience.” I think these failings cause it to be somewhat less than the perfect evidence-based grief coping manual. However, it is still an unusual and very useful book for someone like me who is trying to uncover evidence-based strategies to recover from the suicide death of his only son less than a year ago.

The Science of Resilience

The most striking thing about “Resilience” is the scientific underpinning. The book cites literally hundreds of research papers by psychologists, brain scientists, cognitive researchers and others. This is the sort of evidence I am looking for – scientific studies published in peer-reviewed research journals. This kind of evidence may not be unquestionable truth but, because of the rigorous system of rules that this sort of research is expected to follow, it’s the best available information that I’m aware of.

I like the way the citations are done in this book. When the authors refer to a research finding, they usually follow it with, in parentheses, the name of the study’s lead author and the publication date. At the end of each chapter they list all the studies referred to in that chapter arranged alphabetically by lead author last name.

I find this much more convenient than the usual method. Typically in books like this, a research reference is identified in the text with a number. The number has to be looked up in a list of research notes organized by chapter at the back of the book. For some reason, in other books these back-of-the-book research notes are usually arranged by chapter without including the full chapter number and title. This makes it needlessly difficult to look up details of the citation. I sometimes go through notes sections and pencil in the full chapter names and numbers to make it easier for me. The approach followed in “Resilience” is much more sensible and I hope more books follow it.

The book was published in 2012, so there is no research more recent than that year. However, most of the research is from the prior 20 years and there is a lot of it to choose from. The authors are researchers themselves and seem to have chosen studies that are reasonably well-done and from reputable journals.

The Stories of Resilience

“Resilience” is not just a bunch of dry facts and data. The authors give the text plenty of life with many inspiring stories about prisoners of war, concentration camp survivors and people who’ve experienced physically disabling illness and injuries. These stories put a very human stamp on the book. If you can’t relate to percentages and probabilities, you may still be able to relate to the stories.

As you might expect, all the stories are about people who’ve shown extraordinary resilience, like American Vietnam War POWs who lived for years under horrible conditions of torture and deprivation and returned to civilian life as high-functioning exemplars of toughness. We don’t hear from the people who didn’t manage to rebound from terrible loss. I guess that’s understandable. However, it also seems likely we could learn something from people who’d failed to show resilience. I would like to know what not to do as well as what to do.

10 Factors of Resilience

The presentation is organized around 10 resilience factors that individuals can foster to improve resilience. Each factor is covered in its own chapter explaining why the factor is important, presenting evidence supporting that conclusion and offering suggestions about how to develop more of it. Here are the 10 factors:

  1. Fostering optimism
  2. Facing fear
  3. Solidifying moral compass
  4. Practicing religion and spirituality
  5. Attracting and giving social support
  6. Imitating resilient role models
  7. Physical training
  8. Mental and emotional training
  9. Enhancing cognitive and emotional flexibility
  10. Finding meaning, purpose and growth

I think they have identified nearly all the important factors that can be employed to help someone become more resilient. The chapters are reasonably short, at 15 or so pages each, but cover the topics fairly comprehensively. While the authors generally stop short of prescribing specific exercises as a workbook might, the general tone remains practical and pragmatic. This is a book that aims to tell us what to do, not just present theories.

The Limits of Resilience

The authors do not offer an easy, quick solution to handling challenge or trauma. If you’re not willing to work at it, “Resilience” is probably not for you. It doesn’t tell you how to hand the problem over to anything or anyone else. It doesn’t promise instant results or reveal how to effortlessly overcome challenge. Other books do take those approaches, of course. This is different.

One thing you’ll realize quickly is that the book describes a few lifetimes worth of work a person could do to become more resilient. It’s probably not possible for anyone to develop all 10 factors to any great degree. The authors recognize this. They pragmatically suggest readers pick a couple of factors and focus on them. Later, they say, you could branch out to others.

In my case, I was drawn to factors 1 and 10 – fostering optimism and finding meaning, purpose and growth. I also am attracted to 5 and 7 — attracting and giving social support and physical training. I have little interest in spiritual or religious approaches, so I won’t spend any time fostering that, although it will doubtless be of great interest and value to many other people.

Where’s the Guilt?

As someone whose main interest is in coping with bereavement grief, I see two significant shortcomings in this book. This is not to say it’s a bad book. It’s just not exactly or perfectly what I’m looking for.

The first shortfall is in the lack of a focus on bereavement. While the authors do refer to people who are coping with bereavement – the co-founders of Mothers Against Drunk Driving provide one example – it’s overwhelmingly about people who are coping with personal loss that does not involve the death of a close loved one.

The long-term POWs, Special Forces instructors, amputees, people profoundly disabled by illness and others covered extensively in the book undoubtedly face major challenges. And those challenges are in some ways similar to the ones faced by people grieving the death of a loved one. But they’re not identical.

The second major shortcoming is the almost total lack of any information or advice on dealing with guilt. There are literally only a couple of sentences on guilt in the entire book. People who have lost loved ones to death often have great struggles with guilt. Not uncommonly, it is the toughest challenge of all to overcome.

Guilt may not typically be a big issue for someone who has a congenital disease that causes profound disability, such as Deborah Gruen whose life features prominently in the book. Guilt often is a significant problem for bereaved people, perhaps especially parents bereaved by suicide. No approach that ignores guilt can be considered a complete solution for bereaved grievers like me.

A Resilience Endorsement

I do highly recommend “Resilience.” It’s well-written, engaging and has piles of information and references to mountains of additional resources. If you read this book, or even just skim chapters that interest you, I think it is very likely you will get something useful from it.

I checked a copy out from my local library (renewing it several times, since I went pretty slowly through it) so I didn’t spend any money on it. I do think I will purchase one for my own coping reference shelf, however. (I get no money from Amazon if you purchase through the link at the top. If you’re on a tight budget, you can find a presentation by one of the authors that summarizes many of the book’s points here.)

As always, this review is not an attempt to tell anyone how to grieve, or how not grieve. This is my story of my approach to coping with the suicide death of my only son, Brady, a little less than a year ago. Different strokes for different folks. Your mileage may vary.

Thanks for reading, liking, commenting, sharing, re-posting and following Grieve Well. I am sorry for the losses that brought you here, and I hope you get some peace today.