Studies of hundreds of eminent people throughout history have found that between one-third to one-half lost a parent before age 21. Goertzel and Goertzel studied published biographies of 400 eminent 20th century creators and found that over 85% came from troubled homes. Many had parents who were eccentric or had severe debilitating illnesses. One theory is that childhood adversity leads to greater resilience. Many parents of children who have lost a parent are preoccupied with questions about raising a resilient child.
Sheryl Sandberg, in her latest book Option B, offers strategies to build the “resilient muscle” in kids such as “mattering” and “companioning”. Mattering is the belief that other people notice you and care about you. As a parent we can ensure that our kids know they matter by spending time quality time with them. Companioning is walking alongside them and listening to their needs – and building effective, open communication. Beyond the strategies that Sandberg offers in her article are others that are also necessary in adulthood. Tragedy and loss as well as failure and setbacks have a way of spurring action as a result of the need to overcome a particular situation – that can result in many different positive outcomes.
Many great artists have in common the ability to transform trauma into creative power. Among them is the great French Post-Impressionist painter Paul Gauguin (June 7, 1848–May 8, 1903), whose work influenced such legendary artists as Picasso and Matisse, suffered terrible grief when his father died and made up an imaginary orange dog (in the picture below) to cope with his grief, as a child. He turned out to be one of the most highly-regarded artists of all time. His true story (and illustrations) are captured in a book about grief for children called Mr. Gauguin’s Heart by writer Marie-Danielle Croteau and illustrator Isabelle Arsenault, which tells the story of Gauguin’s early childhood and how, after his father’s death, the young boy sought solace in art and transformed his grief into his first painting. Years later, Paul would become one of the greatest painters of his time.
Illustration by Isabelle Arsenault from Mr. Gauguin’s Heart by Marie-Danielle Croteau.