This article exists as part of the online archive for HuffPost Australia, which closed in 2021.

5 People Who Lived Through Tragedy Share How They Survived

When awful things happen, it’s difficult to know how you could possibly carry on, let alone feel happy again.

However human beings can be remarkably resilient during the toughest of times.

The School Of Life, which aims to help people develop their emotional intelligence through workshops and lectures, highlights the importance of building resilience in life.

“Ultimately cultivating resilience as an emotional skill allows us not only to overcome setbacks, but also to take on a healthy level of risk - secure in the knowledge that we can weather the storm if things go wrong,” a spokesperson told HuffPost UK.

This resilience can take many forms “from thinking through how we cope if things go badly, to practising self-compassion”.

Here are five people who have shown it’s possible to be resilient and move forwards, even from the toughest, most heart-wrenching situations.

Victoria Milligan is a personal trainer, mentor and writer.

Victoria and her family before the accident. Left to right: Emily, Nicko, Olivia, Victoria with Kit on her lap and Amber.
Victoria and her family before the accident. Left to right: Emily, Nicko, Olivia, Victoria with Kit on her lap and Amber.

In May 2013, Victoria Milligan and her family were involved in a tragic boat accident in Cornwall. The family-of-six were spending time on their speedboat when it veered out of control and they were all thrown into the water. The boat continued to turn at high speed in the water, hitting each member of her family - including her.

“That fateful afternoon took from me my gorgeous husband Nicko and beautiful eight-year-old daughter Emily,” she said.

“The propellers of the boat also cut my right leg and my son Kit’s left leg - his took nine months and 15 operations to save, mine was amputated that night.”

Milligan was left numb and completely in shock following the incident.

“I was a happily married mother-of-four that morning,” she explained. “By that night I was a widow, bereaved parent, single parent and amputee.”

She credits three things for helping her through this dark time: support from friends, family and therapists; a natural disposition to talk about her emotions with others; and knowing how much love there was in her family before the accident.

“I have never felt regret that I didn’t have a chance to say ‘goodbye’ to them because I know that it doesn’t matter, they knew that we loved them and I know that they loved us,” she explained. “I have learnt that loss doesn’t end the relationship we have with that person, it just changes it.

“They will always be a huge part of mine and the children’s lives, they are interwoven into the fabric of our souls and we take them forwards with us into anything we do.”

She said that while she will never ‘get over’ the grief, she is slowly becoming used to its presence.

While she was terrified of the future immediately after the tragic event, she is now taking life one day at a time (”and sometimes one hour at a time if that is all I felt I could manage”).

“I set small achievable goals: saving Kit’s leg, learning to walk on a prosthetic, going to the girls’ sports day etc,” she explained. “Then slowly I realised I was living again and not just existing.”

Milligan likens grief to a metal spiky ball, stabbing at the heart and causing endless pain.

She said: “Over time the ends of the spikes blunt a little, until eventually the ball is smaller and round, not spiky, showing that our grief will always be there but it inflicts less and less pain on us as we get used to its constant presence.”

Jonny Benjamin is a mental health campaigner, writer, filmmaker and public speaker.

Jonny Benjamin (right) with Neil Laybourn, who saved his life. 
Jonny Benjamin (right) with Neil Laybourn, who saved his life. 

At the age of 20, Jonny Benjamin became psychotic and was admitted into a psychiatric hospital. He was later diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder.

“I was hearing a voice and being watched by cameras,” he recalled.

“I attempted to take my own life soon after I was diagnosed, believing I would not recover, but was talked out of doing so by a kind stranger.”

Benjamin said it took time to heal after the traumatic event. “For the first few years I denied what had happened and didn’t want to talk to anyone about it,” he explained.

“But in my mid-twenties I finally began to open up to people and that was the real turning point for me.

“Starting to practice mindfulness helped me to find some peace of mind and learning about self-compassion and self-acceptance has helped me be kinder to myself.”

Benjamin’s life still has its ups and downs, with the mental health campaigner experiencing occasional relapses. However he credits his positive attitude for helping him through it.

“I had a relapse and was hospitalised again three months ago,” he revealed.

“But I have a much more positive mindset now. I tell myself I will recover because I’ve done it before and I can most certainly do it again. And I talk. Some people may think I overshare but for me it helps. You wouldn’t conceal if you were in physical distress, so why should we have to hide any mental distress?”

Poorna Bell is the executive editor of HuffPost UK and author of ‘Chase The Rainbow’.

Poorna and her husband Rob on their wedding day.
Poorna and her husband Rob on their wedding day.

In May 2015, Poorna Bell’s husband Rob died by suicide. He had been struggling with depression since childhood and had also developed a heroin addiction.

“For three years of our relationship, he kept it hidden from me,” explained Bell.

“When he was alive, I helped him through his recovery as best I could, and we tried to do it alone so that few people knew about it.

“In the end, his struggles were too great and he took his own life in New Zealand where he was visiting family at the time.”

After hearing of her husband’s death, Bell said she didn’t know how she would get through the day, let alone the week.

“I had to rapidly shrink my world and my expectations - if I could make it to the next morning, that would be enough,” she explained.

“It then accumulated into weeks, months and I remember being shocked I had made it that far.”

The journalist and author also credits her friends and family for helping her through such a difficult time.

“There was initially so much anger and hurt - both at what at happened and because I knew I would probably feel incredibly sad for a long time. But what I chose to do - and this was a choice - was to hold onto love,” she explained.

“Because love leads to understanding, and understanding leads to empathy and kindness, and that is how the world changes.”

While Bell carries her grief with her, every minute of every day, she said it doesn’t overwhelm her as much as it used to. It has also helped to give her a sense of perspective.

“When Rob first died, it seemed impossible that I would ever be able to feel and function like a normal human being again,” she said. “Now I know that I can.

“So whenever something seems impossible, or like this is the only way I will ever feel, I take a deep breath and remember that it won’t.”

Jade Braithwaite is a French and Spanish teacher.

Jade with her mum and dad.
Jade with her mum and dad.

Jade Braithwaite lost her mum to breast cancer three years ago and, just 18 months later, her step-sister died by suicide. This year, her father passed away suddenly from a heart attack.

“It was so devastating,” she recalled. “The pain I felt was excruciating.”

Braithwaite had only just started to feel like she was coming to terms with her grief. But then news of her dad’s death on 9 January 2017 sent everything flying backwards.

She said her mum’s friends, as well as her own close friends and boyfriend, helped support her through the difficult time.

“But more than anything, taking part in charity events and raising money that can help other people in similar situations has really pushed me through the difficulties,” she explained.

“Knowing that whatever money I raise will go towards something so positive gives me goosebumps. And of course knowing how proud my parents would be is extremely comforting. After my mum died I ran the ‘Race For Life’ and after my dad died it was an easy decision to take part in ‘My Marathon for BHF’.”

So what does the future look like now, compared to immediately after the event?

“Immediately after finding out my dad had died I felt sick, couldn’t breathe, thought life was so unfair and wondered when my pain would stop and how I would ever recover or get a break from yet more tragedy,” she explained.

“I’m still sad and still have days where I don’t want to get out of bed and socialise but that’s okay and very normal.

“I am quite accepting that this is my life now and I welcome every opportunity or challenge with open arms.

“It’s very different to what I imagined three years ago but I try to be as positive as I can and live a life my parents would be proud of.”

Visit her fundraising page here.

Emma Slade is an ordained Buddhist nun, author and yoga and meditation teacher.

Emma Slade was held hostage at gunpoint when she was 31 years old. She was working as a financial analyst in Hong Kong when a gunman burst into her hotel room and held a gun to her chest.

“Whether I lived or died was entirely in someone else’s hands,” she recalled.

The traumatic event left her with severe post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which took her a long time to recover from.

Her ordeal made her reevaluate life and, two decades after the incident took place, she is an ordained Buddhist nun and the founder of a charity helping children in Bhutan.

“Any experience of deep suffering connects us directly with the awareness both of how precious life is and of its impermanence,” she said.

“It can also remind us of how interconnected we all our and how we all play a role in creating the world we live in. Developing kindness and a determination to not harm others is crucial.”

She said she overcame PTSD by transforming her negative experience “into a deeper understanding of life”.

“My life and future now feel far more meaningful than they did before,” she explained. “I don’t waste my time and work hard to help others.”

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