My Toughest Resilience Gig Ever – And What I Learned

Kate Middleton

(My sister Sue introducing Kate Middleton to a Bear Cottage family)

Can you imagine losing a child? It is my greatest nightmare. My sister Sue (who I am immensely proud of), is a Nursing Unit Manager at Bear Cottage. This Sydney organisation helps provide support and care for terminally ill children and their families.

Sue has been providing amazing support to these families since it opened in 2001. Sue realizes the incredible toll that a sick child has on their family’s wellbeing –and particularly their mothers. She decided to put together a wellbeing boot camp for the mums.

Sue is incredibly resourceful and used her network, persistence, and charm, to put together an amazing program for these special mums, and asked me to do a session on building resilience and wellbeing.

I have given hundreds of workshops in the business, not for profit, and government sector, but I confess I found preparing for this workshop very intimidating. Most of my groups are facing workplace change – restructures, outsourcing, reengineering, or retrenchments. Whilst not underestimating the stress these workplace changes can induce, I couldn’t help reflect on how insignificant these were in the context of losing a child.

In doing the pre workshop research, I found out that 4 mums had lost their child in the last 2 months, and 4 were facing a very uncertain future with their child. I felt inadequate.

One of the studies I share with workshop attendees is a finding from Sonja Lyubomirsky’s book The How of Happiness, that our wellbeing is determined by 3 things: our genetics which contribute 50%, our circumstances, 10%; and our intentional activity, 40%. The implication being, that what we choose to do each day has a more significant impact on our mood, than circumstances.

Elizabeth (name changed) asked “What do you do, if you feel like your 10% (circumstances) has a 90% impact on your wellbeing?”.  I mumbled some inadequate answer about the work of Viktor Frankl, the Jewish psychiatrist who lost everything in concentration camps, but somehow was able to get through this hell by finding meaning in the suffering.

During a brief break, I had the idea (dohhh) to ask each of them, what they do when their 10% seems like 90%. Their responses were fascinating:

  • I listen to Abba’s Dancing Queen

“Music takes me into a different space and time, and helps to lift my spirits. I love Abba – sometimes I’m in the mood for them and sometimes Phantom of the Opera.”

  • Spring cleaning

“I attack my closet and get rid of anything unnecessary. It is cathartic and it feels liberating to get rid of my old stuff.”

  • Coffee and Cake

“Sometimes I can’t face being alone at home with my thoughts. I have to get out, and find myself going for lots of coffee and cake.”

  • Throw myself into work

“I take on more and more, so that my mind is focused on other things.”

  • We bought a Bassett Hound

“After our family loved looking after my sister’s Bassett Hound, we have decided to buy one ourselves. A dog’s unconditional love and sense of fun is priceless”


So what did I learn?

The ordinary can help us cope with the extraordinary

These women showed how courageous they were in the face of horrific circumstances, but also shared that it was the simple things that can provide respite from emotional pain. I was humbled by their bravery, and inspired by the work my sister Sue and the team at Bear Cottage do to support them.

Graeme Cowan is a speaker and author who helps leaders build their resilience, wellbeing, and performance.

Image courtesy Getty

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