How I Came to Understand Resilience During the Pandemic

The pandemic seems to have been going on for seven years and seven minutes—at the same time. As my family and I celebrated the last day of school in June 2021 by making our own sundaes, I felt a little overwhelmed and emotional—and maybe a touch in awe of what we had accomplished. 2020 wasn’t a piece of cake for anyone, and certainly not me (and neither is 2021). Between the isolation, three children on “Zoom school” for eight months, multiple kid and parent breakdowns of varying degrees, working full time while completing my masters’ degree in clinical mental health counseling, and grieving the loss of my dear second mother (as we called my stepmother), who died from complications from COVID-19, I barely survived. But I did, and I’m still standing. Still able to laugh, too, and make my own sundae with gusto. After losing a parent, I honestly wasn’t sure I’d be able to say that. But if the past year and a half has taught me anything, it’s that we are capable of much more than we ever thought possible—if only we help and listen to each other.

I look back on two moments as pivotal for how I understand my own resilience, and how that’s changed over this last year. The first was in my backyard. It was a summer night in Chicago, after the kids had gone to bed. I sat under our string lights, fully, deeply, and happily exhausted at the conclusion of Nixon Peabody’s RISE with Resilience program. The program was my passion project. I’d written and created it from my heart in the onset of the pandemic, modeling it after Martin Seligman and Karen Reivich’s Military Resilience Training, and using the elements explained in it to teach our colleagues those skills. The program was deeply meaningful to me—but not because of the program, which I lived and breathed. It was (and perhaps it always is) the people.

I gave the program seven times, asking three to four storytellers at every program to share their own stories of resilience, which I used to weave the themes of resilience into an educational narrative. Their stories were powerful, beautiful, inspirational, and quite frankly, better than anything I could have taught or come up with on my own. We had lawyers and other professionals share their stories of grief, mental health challenges (including anxiety, depression, OCD and many others), various kinds of loss, family struggles, substance use and illness, terminal and otherwise. This list simply cannot do the stories justice. Many of our storytellers would not have called their experiences examples of “resilience,” but after talking with them about what resilience is (the ability to bounce back—and grow from—adversity), they each began to recognize their own power in the stories. They seemed to emerge stronger, more healed, and ready for the next challenge as they talked about their experiences.

During every one of those stories, I had to pinch myself in order to keep it together enough to continue giving the presentation—and I’d already heard them! My emotional, and sometimes teary, reaction was amplified by the community created by sharing those stories. I would watch the program chat light up with incredible and generous support for each of our storytellers. Phrases like “me too,” “thank you so much for sharing,” “you are so brave and wonderful,” and “this makes me feel less alone” overwhelmed the chat string. Our storytellers had colleagues reaching out after the program to talk further, or to share their own challenges, and with this momentum, created a RISE with Resilience interview series to further share our colleagues’ experiences. The storytellers’ courage, and the community we created, told me that what we were doing was worthwhile, that it mattered, and that somehow, in some small way, we were helping each other by witnessing and supporting the journeys of our colleagues. As I wrote the last thank you to the last storyteller under the lights in my backyard, my tears flowed freely. I was both humbled and proud of what we had accomplished together. We had created community in a time of uncertainty, loneliness and isolation that gave myself, the storytellers, and our firm a new understanding of how these principles can really support who we are and how we can be there for each other.

Based on this idea, I created a program for the “Inner Strength” day of Nixon Peabody’s annual meeting. I gathered four more storytellers and we wrote, edited, and recorded their stories. I wrote the program content using “Ordinary Magic,” a concept coined by psychologist and resilience expert Ann Masten at the University of Minnesota. Masten’s “Ordinary Magic” is the idea that resilience is the result of the ordinary—the call from a friend to help you through, the supportive reach out from a colleague, the unexpected care from someone you know—and how these ordinary interactions help us all create our own resilience. Masten posits that it isn’t any magic that helps us bounce back from adversity, but truly, the most ordinary of actions that helps us through our challenges. The stories were amazing, the content was sharp, relevant, and powerful.

I wasn’t just excited about the stories themselves. I believed that I was living and thriving through resilience (aren’t we all?). I was taking great care of myself emotionally, physically, and spiritually, bouncing back and then some from every challenge, facing the world with connection, optimism and mental agility. I leaned into the stories told by my storytellers, using their experiences as examples of how we can survive and thrive through anything; leaning into how these tools really helped me be more productive, stronger than ever. Isn’t that what resilience is all about? Isn’t that what I felt so proud of in that moment under the lights thanking the people who shared their experiences?

Which brings me to the second moment, where I learned that I didn’t quite understand the power of resilience in the way I thought I had. In January 2021, days before I was to present the “Ordinary Magic” program to the firm, my stepmother (or second mom as we called her), Cathy, died. She had been chronically ill, but none of us thought this was where we were heading. Cathy was another mother to me, and helped raise me, my sister, and my brother. She was relentlessly positive, full of joy, laughter and life, and suddenly she was gone. My heart was shattered, and felt like it was coming out of my chest. I also panicked. Who would give this presentation? Should I try to do this with a broken heart? Could I even get through it? Wasn’t I supposed to be resilient?

The answer came from an unexpected place: my colleague, Allison McClain, our firm’s chief communications officer. Allison said to me, “You have taught us so much about resilience. Now it’s your turn. Ask for help—and let us handle this. You’ve prepared us so well that we can’t go wrong. Go and be with your family, grieve. This will all be here when you get back.”

I went.

And when I came back, the demands of work and life were all still there waiting for me. The program had gone on without me, thanks to the efforts of some caring and generous colleagues. So I tried to go back to living just the way I was before: doing all the things at work and school, counseling my clients, trying to be a good parent, be present, taking care of myself. I tried everything I had learned, everything I practiced. But all of the sudden, none of it was working. Everything felt harder, heavier with the weight of knowing that Cathy wasn’t coming back, and I would never be able to say the last things I wanted to say to her. That she knew I loved her, and she loved me, but did she know how deeply and how much I cared, even though I had barely seen her in the last year of her life during COVID? Would she ever know?

I now understood the stories of grief that I had heard during RISE with Resilience in a way I hadn’t before. I felt deeply that I hadn’t done enough for my friends and family who had previously lost loved ones. And yet, I still didn’t know what I needed that would have done the trick. Every day felt like an ache, the space around my heart stretching beyond my chest and into my ribs, my throat, my voice. I was lost. And sad.

So I tried to fix it (I can’t help myself.). I kept at it. I meditated, I exercised, I called friends and family confessing my guilt. And in doing so, I learned that grief is guilt, that you can’t always just fix it, and that resilience has a more profound meaning than I had appreciated. Sometimes the idea of “bouncing back from adversity” isn’t immediate, and “emotional regulation” means being with the feelings you already have. Sometimes the “it just takes time,” while maddening, really is true. And sometimes, one day at a time is really all we can do. So I looked at the Maria Ranier Wilke quote that I had taped to my wall (you might know it: “Have patience with all that is unresolved in your heart…”) and I gave myself something I normally don’t: patience and kindness. I let myself have days where I didn’t get much done. I stopped forcing myself to always over perform (again, I can’t help myself). I asked for help from my team and told them I wasn’t at my best. All of them helped me, whether they know it or not. Their willingness to do or to take anything off my plate (even if they never actually did), helped me immeasurably. As did the hours of crying on the phone (still COVID) with the friends I have come to call family. My sister and I started regular Facetime workouts that I look forward to every week, a point of reconnection and support in our collective grief. And I am beginning to feel, day by day, moment by moment, the space in my heart and my chest heal a tiny bit at a time.

I am nowhere near the destination I thought I was supposed to reach, and maybe I never will be. But I am still here, I am still standing, and I am still making my own sundaes. I spent this last weekend with my mom and dad, who both loved Cathy dearly, and we told stories and laughed until we cried. Our hearts are not healed from the gaping hole Cathy leaves, but they are linked to each other, and to her, with love. We can lean on each other and ask for what we need. This is what leaves me knowing that I will be okay; that after all that, I truly am resilient, and that’s because I’m not alone.

About the Author

Shannon Callahan is the senior attorney development and retention manager for Nixon Peabody LLP, based in the firm’s Chicago office, and previously practiced law at three other law firms.

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