Resilience: Thriving Through Adversity – A Conversation with Lee Woodruff
By Melanie Wells
Bad things happen – to all of us. We’re all on the same road; we will all experience loss, all meet with adversity. This was the witty, wise, and genuinely warm message from Lee Woodruff in her lively presentation to a crowd of 250 people at the University Club November 7.
So, if hard times are eventually coming to all of us, how do we all cope? How do we meet the challenge? Keep it simple, said Lee. And don’t forget to laugh.
Modelling her own good advice, Lee first disarmed the crowd with humor: “Every time I come to NYC,” she began, “I’m gob-smacked by your clothes! I’m in Westchester – I lay out my outfit the night before. But in the car today I realized, I’m dressed like a banker! And now, here’s Heidi [Wald, NYC-PIA Board] with that fur vest! If I wore it, I’d look like something out of The Revenant – but she’s rocking it!”
Her audience at ease and eager for more, Woodruff then offered a little background on how her theme – finding resilience when the unthinkable happens – has played out in her own family. Her narrative, like life, mixed moments of hilarity with moments when her listeners were brought to tears. The plain, unvarnished truth of a family’s challenges, simply told, can be powerful.
In 2006, Lee’s husband, the charismatic and respected ABC television journalist Bob Woodruff, sustained a severe brain injury while embedded with troops in Iraq. At the time, the couple’s four children ranged from adolescence down to age five. Lee recalls she was at Disney World with the children when the phone rang and a voice said “Hello, Lee.” It was her husband’s boss, with the news no one ever wants to hear. Recalling the phrases – your husband has been hit, shrapnel to the brain, going into surgery – Lee also remembers dread, knowing she had to tell her children, who were still in bed. She called her mother, called Bob’s mother, then went into the shower “to take a moment” and “started bawling,” when her youngest came in.
“I had to push my emotions down, FOR THEM,” she recalls. “I knew each child would take the news differently;” she also knew she’d have to be there for each, individually. “First I had to get them home,” she said, and then “I had to leave the door open for them,” for whatever they might need.
Lee warned the audience against assuming that her family’s suffering was any greater than anyone else’s. As she put it, grief is grief; loss is loss. “There’s no one way to be. Everybody takes grief at their own pace,” she said, noting that we all “accept a shocking event in our own way.” Sensitive to the implicit agony behind Lee’s story, the audience was hushed. Yet, just as the title of her presentation suggested, Lee delivered on her promise to marry resiliency with suffering: “The human spirit is built to survive,” she said. The big question for mothers and fathers, is, how do we parent through adversity so that our children, too, will learn to survive the rough parts?
Lee’s formula is simple: she has four “legs” that she can stand on. She calls them “The Four F’s:”
Family: “Where would we be without them??” asks Lee. While she was spending all her time at Bob’s hospital bedside, the kids were safe with the extended family. That support was invaluable, she said.
Friends: “We honor, support, and tend to each other,” Lee said. This is what you do for your friends, and this is what you can ask your friends to do for you.
Faith: Chuckling a little, Lee acknowledged that in New York City, people don’t automatically “nod along with you when you bring up faith.” She has found that for her, after being raised in a home with faith, that “it was the trampoline that stopped me from going lower.” She recalled that on the 35th day of Bob’s hospital stay, she felt she “had nothing left.” That day, she said, “I prayed he’d wake up. And the next day, he did.” At first, he was mostly speaking gibberish, she said, but, “He could say ‘Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’!” Brain injuries are tough, and healing is not predictable. The road ahead would be long, but for Lee, the moment when Bob awoke was a turning point and an answered prayer.
Fun: In hard times, humor rules. “You’ve just got to laugh!” Lee insisted cheerfully. She recounted an anecdote after Bob returned from a first visit back to his home town, post-injury and recovery. Looking at photos of his high school friends, Lee pointed out one she thought had changed a lot and Bob told her “I think she must have had a breast explosion.” Lee laughed along with her audience at this creative phrasing, but she modeled her point well: even if there is post-traumatic language change, there is humor too.
Living with adversity doesn’t mean you have to be cheerful every minute. It’s okay to admit it’s not easy. Lee offered another story, this one of a conversation with one of her children who asked her, at a time when no one knew what Bob’s recovery would be, “Is Daddy going to be okay?” Lee said she thought before she spoke, realizing “If I lied, she’d never believe me again,” then responded, truthfully, “Honestly, I don’t know, but I believe that God is going to make him get better.” After that, Lee added, her daughter was able to go to sleep.
Lee warned against “parenting by fear,” which she said can “overload” children. Keep it simple, she said. Too much information can be the worst choice. Do acknowledge things can be hard, but balance that with hope. She recalls going to the grocery store and seeing “all those gold-buckled Tory Burches scurrying away from me,” because the women in them were avoiding being caught “not knowing what to say.” Just empathize, she urged. It’s fine to simply admit, “This stinks!” For your kids, acknowledge things are tough, but express faith that better times will come. Lee recalls her five-year-old worrying about whether “Daddy will ever be the same.” Realizing that no one could give absolute assurance either way, the child found her own version of hope, saying, “I think this Daddy loves me even more.”
Beautifully in tune with NYC-PIA’s belief in the importance of parent/child communication, Lee echoed that same message. Tell your kids, “I’m here if you ever want to talk,” she said, and don’t be afraid of “doing it wrong,” because “you can always circle back and apologize.” Teach your children to do that, too, she added., and model it for them.
As she wrapped up a heartfelt, entertaining and inspiring presentation, Lee left her listeners with one final nugget: Our kids “love us unconditionally,” she said, so always remember to “just be there.”