Book Review: “Resilience” by Elizabeth Edwards

Book Review: Resilience: Reflections on the Burdens and Gifts of Facing Life’s Adversities by Elizabeth Edwards

I didn’t read Elizabeth Edwards’ book Resilience until after her death.  I had followed the difficulties she had faced in her life, especially since her battle against breast cancer paralleled my sister’s experience.  After Elizabeth Edwards died, I decided that perhaps the book  would bring me some consolation, some way to deal with my sister’s death from breast cancer in 2005.  The book was not a disappointment,  but it is really not so much a book about cancer or her husband’s infidelity, as many readers thought it would be.    It is a mainly a book about grief, especially grief over the loss of her son Wade when he was seventeen years old.

I like the title.  I think that was what first drew me to the book, along with recent interviews I had seen that briefly mentioned the book but tended to focus on her cancer.  In the book Edwards defines resilience as “accepting your new reality, even if it’s less good than the one you had before.”  I always connect the word “resilience” with a rubber band.  With care it will stretch far, but stretch it too far and it breaks.  As a teacher, I frequently wrapped rubber bands around index cards I used with my students.  More often than not, I chose a rubber band that wasn’t strong enough to hold the cards together.  The band broke and the cards scattered.  You would think after that happened just once, I would always reach for the thickest, strongest band.  I didn’t.  I thought I could learn a lot about resilience from the book.

When my sister’s breast cancer recurred four years after her initial diagnosis, no one in our family was able to handle the reality of the path she was about to take.  The doctors knew they were only going to be able to offer her the best quality of life they could find until no further treatment could be offered.   I was going through my own fear having been diagnosed with breast cancer in the same month as her recurrence.  My sister did not share with me the depth of her fear about death, and so reading Elizabeth Edwards’ thoughts about dying from cancer and leaving her children behind helped me to imagine my sister’s unshared thoughts about leaving both her children and grandchildren and the life she had created for herself.

Elizabeth Edwards wrote a lot about her struggle to cope with the loss of her son.   One thought that helped her deal with her recurrence was her belief that she would be reunited with her son in death.   Throughout the book she taught valuable lessons to her readers because she wrote about how people she knew dealt with grief.  As I read the book, I kept looking for inspiration, for some way to achieve closure with my own grief.  I reached the final pages of the book still looking for those things because apparently reading about how others deal with grief isn’t always the solution to one’s own.   One story that did bring some peace was her story of the four-legged table.

The story is much better told by Edwards, but I think I can summarize it.  When one leg was stolen from the table a carpenter made for his family, a table that became the center of their lives, he tried to re-balance it by piling books and heavy objects at the sturdier end.   It didn’t work.  Finally, he reconfigured the table, turning it into a round table with three legs.  Elizabeth Edwards used the story to suggest that perhaps she just needed to re-configure her family after the loss of her son.  The story connects to Edwards’ definition of resilience, the necessity of accepting a new reality.

Resilience may not have been what I expected but it remains a very powerful book.   Anyone who has experienced a major loss should read her book.  For days after reading Resilience I found myself thinking about certain passages and feeling Elizabeth Edwards’ grief.  Her voice is soft and soothing throughout, much like in her interviews, but the pain and emotion are raw.  Among the valuable lessons she had to teach is the lesson I am not sure I want: closure at the loss of my sister may come only when I am reunited with her in death.

Breast Cancer Survivors and TSA Screening

I will be flying to California this year to visit family, and at the top of the list of reasons why I no longer enjoy flying is the TSA screening.  The new choices involve exposing myself to radiation or enduring a physically-invasive pat-down.  I understand the need to make flying as safe as possible for us all, but the new procedures pose particular difficulties for some people with past or existing medical conditions.  Among those passengers who often dread the screening procedures are breast cancer survivors.

A recent news story featured an interview with a breast cancer survivor who had a traumatic experience flying.  She was a senior citizen who had survived breast cancer and had a mastectomy. During the interview she struggled to control her tears as she described her travel experience.   During the screening process in Canada, she was asked to raise her arms up.  Anyone who has been through breast cancer knows that surgery results in limited movement on the side of the mastectomy.  She tried to explain she could not do it only to be told she had to.  Then a search centered on her gel-filled prosthesis.  That became problematic for the screening employee who then took her aside for more screening.  A subsequent interview with a higher-up  agent explained that they try to make the screening process a pleasant experience for everyone.  PLEASANT?  REALLY?   Who is he kidding?  Even for the average person who makes it through the screening without overwhelming feelings of being violated or subjected to unwanted radiation, the process of boarding an airplane will never again be pleasant.  But far too often breast cancer survivors are subjected to extra humiliation just to be able to fly.

Last November a flight attendant from Charlotte, N.C.,  a three-year breast cancer survivor, was asked to show her prosthetic breast during a pat-down, a totally-humiliating experience other breast cancer survivors have also had.  Even though these passengers and others have filed complaints or instituted law suits,  so far the screening procedures have remained the same.

Sensitivity training has obviously been missing from whatever training screening agents must undergo, both in this country and in Canada.  News stories of humiliation surface on a regular basis today.  It’s about time someone did something about this.  Susan G. Komen for the Cure has asked survivors to inform them of negative experiences flying.  As a breast cancer survivor,   I hope I won’t need to do that.

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