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The Neuroscience of True Grit

When tragedy strikes, most of us ultimately rebound surprisingly well. Where does such resilience come from?
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Photograph by Adam Voorhes. Photographed at The Department of Psychology and Institute for Neuroscience, University of Texas at Austin

In fall 2009 Jeannine Brown Miller was driving home with her husband after a visit with her mother in Niagara Falls, N.Y. She came upon a police roadblock near the entrance to the Niagara University campus. Ambulance lights flashed up ahead. Miller knew her 17-year-old son, Jonathan, had been out in his car. Even though she couldn’t make out what was happening clearly, something told her she should stop. She asked one of the emergency workers on the scene to check whether the car had the license plate “J Mill.” A few minutes later a policeman and a chaplain approached, and she knew, even before they reached her, what they would say.

The loss of her son—the result of an undiagnosed medical problem that caused his sudden death even before his car rammed a tree—proved devastating. Time slowed to a crawl in the days immediately after Jonathan’s death. “The first week was like an eternity,” she says. “I lived minute by minute, not even hour by hour. I would just wake up and not think beyond what was in front of me.”

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