We at Center For Resilience were honored to have Gigi DiBello, head of Sophia Academy in Providence, speak at our annual fundraiser in October of 2017. Gigi lives resilience in a truly authentic way in every facet of her life. The following story is an abbreviated version of her remarks last fall.
My first connection to Center For Resilience was at a backyard summer fundraiser for Sophia Academy where I met Vanessa and her husband, Lewis, in June of 2012. We talked about families, the cancer diagnosis my wife had recently received, and giving young people the tools they need to deal with the adversity they face in their lives. This conversation resonated with me on many levels. I had learned the skills Vanessa was teaching kids when I was a kid in my school. And I attribute my equanimity as an adult to those lessons I learned in middle school long ago.
As an eleven-year-old sixth grade student at Matawan Junior High, I was not unlike many of our Sophia middle school students. I was interested in my friends, being and looking cool, and fitting in. I experienced some anxiety, but it was my younger sister who had debilitating anxiety about going to school. My parents turned to her teacher and principal for help. They were so disappointed by the school’s response to my sister’s “problem” that they found an alternative school for her – The New School of Monmouth County, and I went with her.
Like Sophia, The New School was a small, relatively new, independent school. And even though it was 1972, there were many innovative practices in place, like project-based learning and opportunities to learn outside of the school. My sister and I both thrived intellectually, and emotionally. We were introduced to deep breathing, yoga-like stretches, guided meditation, and peaceful chimes or bells – the same tools we use at Sophia now, thanks to our collaboration with Center For Resilience. These mindfulness skills, which helped my sister and I manage our anxiety and thrive, remain deeply embedded in me and in my practice as an educator. So, it should come as no surprise that I was moved by Vanessa’s description of the program she had just launched—then called Resilient Kids—and I asked if Sophia could become a pilot site.
According to Center For Resilience, “resilience is a critical quality that can mean the difference between thriving and simply surviving.” Like Vanessa and the instructors at the Center For Resilience, I believe that resilience can be taught and that resilience is based on a series of experiences where an individual understands themselves to be capable and competent by experiencing joy—both emotional and intellectual pleasure, along with failure and pain. My story of resilience is really made up of many stories: the story of my sister and me at the New School; the stories that connect me to the young people at Sophia Academy; and those stories from my everyday struggles as an adult woman, from my past and those yet to be written.
I want to go back to the cancer diagnosis I mentioned previously. My wife Carla was diagnosed with metastatic Pancreatic Cancer in March of 2012 and passed away in May 2014. The story of our family—we raised two beautiful daughters together—is a story of love, connection, and generosity of spirit that spans 25 years.
Carla was the epitome of resilience. She thrived during her illness. She never spoke about “fighting” cancer or asked “why me?” She wanted us to live each day with her, to the fullest. Of course there were awful moments in the 25 months from diagnosis to death, and times when we were angry at her for having a positive attitude in the face of a terminal illness. Ultimately, though, we were grateful for her perseverance and strength. She felt joy most days, even up to the end. She modeled for us how to be resilient.
Like Carla, I, too, drew comfort, love and support from our family and circle of friends to help me through the hardest days. I will admit that I cried easily and often for a long time. My favorite place to cry was at the gym; I think the exercise was a release and helped me to be resilient. Also, often on my way home from exercising, I would stop off at my friends’ house to get a hug. No words, only a hug. I found talking too laborious at those moments. In fact for someone as extroverted as me, I found comfort in being quiet and alone.
After Carla died, there was space for Carla in my solitude, and I went deep inside myself to a place I still go sometimes. I also wrote a lot, poetry mostly. Interestingly to me, both our daughters, who couldn’t be more different emotionally, channeled their feelings in productive ways through writing. For Zoe it was her PhD thesis and for Francesca it was a play she with music she composed, and I think they would say these experiences helped them to weather their grief.
What my family and I came to understand was that while resiliency cannot not take away the pain of a huge loss, it can help us endure it and, in time, embrace the new life that is waiting for us.