3 Ways to Survive Hardship

Elizabeth Edwards offers advice on dealing with tragedy.

| August 2009

Former lawyer, mother of four, and wife of former presidential candidate John Edwards, Elizabeth Edwards, 60, has endured the death of her beloved son Wade at 16, the recurrence of her breast cancer, and most recently, public revelations about her husband’s private behavior on the campaign trail. By her own admission, she knows nothing at all about avoiding adversity. “If I had special knowledge … about how to spot the pitfalls of life, I would spot them, I would avoid them, and I would share how it is I had managed that,” she writes in her new memoir, Resilience: Reflections on the Burdens and Gifts of Facing Life’s Adversities. What she does have: “a lot of experience in getting up after I have been knocked down.” That, and an unflinching ability to tell the truth about how it feels. Among her rules for living:

1. Adversity is everywhere. But so are examples of people who are making a meaningful life from the materials at hand.
“I learned that from my dad [Navy captain Vincent Anania, who died last year]. He kept making the best of what he had as his life narrowed down to virtually nothing. Even in what I knew to be his last hours, he was giving me a thumbs-up. It was a great life lesson. I speak to a lot of people with breast cancer who are feeling down about their prognosis. What I say is this: ‘Death will decide when your physical death happens. You can decide to start dying earlier.’ You see so many people who do that—they just give up. Hold on to hope as long as you can.”

2. This is what life is—feel it all.
“Right after Wade died, I said to a friend, ‘At least I had him for 16 years.’ And immediately I thought, What a stupid thing to say. It will never be enough, not for him, not for me. But the truth is, I had him for 16 years. And the day I [can't see] the value in having 16 years with that boy is the day I cut off the edges of my life and narrow it down to a non-feeling middle. And I don’t want to live there.”

3. Take comfort where you find it.
“A man we knew who had lost his brother gave us a good piece of advice. He said, ‘People will say the wrong thing. You just have to remember that they meant to say the right thing.’ It allows you to be so much more gracious.”