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Toxic Positivity and the Effect on Grief

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“Toxic Positivity.” What in the world does that mean? Many of us from the time we are little are told to Think positiveLook on the bright side. Turn that rainy day into a sunny day. For goodness sake, don’t cry. Change those sad thoughts into happy thoughts. There is even a song called “Don’t Worry. Be Happy.”

How do you help a grieving friend? There is much wisdom in this little video.
Video courtesy of Megan Devine, RefugeInGrief.com

What does that do to the human feelings underneath? As a human being, we have an entire range of feelings that, according to researchers at the University of California, Berkeley include the following 27 categories of emotions: admiration, adoration, aesthetic appreciation, amusement, anger, anxiety, awe, awkwardness, boredom, calmness, confusion, craving, disgust, empathic pain, entrancement, excitement, fear, horror, interest, joy, nostalgia, relief, romance, sadness, satisfaction, sexual desire and surprise.

There are many theories and much research about feelings and emotions. They all indicate that as humans, we have emotions and feelings. That’s the human experience! So, what happens when we suppress those feelings?  As humans, we are not programmed to only feel positive emotions and have positive thoughts. Our emotions guide us to what our bodies need to heal and progress. I so often hear, “I don’t want to cry or feel sad,” yet that’s the very thing that our bodies are telling us that we need right now.

When you deny feelings, they get bigger… and they wait for you in your body. Remember, feelings are in our bodies with all of the neurochemistry that comes from our brains. It’s important to know that what we don’t grieve waits for us. Grief is in the body and so is the neurochemistry. 

Toxic Positivity (TP): Don’t think about it. Stay positive and busy.                          
Feelings in Grief (FG): My loved one just died. I don’t feel positive.

TP: Look for the positive. At least they had a long and good life.      
FG: It wasn’t long enough for me. It hurts to not have them here now.

TP: You’ll start dating and meet someone again.                                                                                 
FG: What? I don’t want to date.

TP: Your loved one gave you permission to move on.                        
FG: I want my loved one back. I still feel married. I don’t want to move on.

Some of the messages that toxic positivity gives to someone who is grieving are:

  • Keep your grief a secret. No one wants to hear it.
  • Something must be wrong with you that you can’t turn this around.
  • You’re supposed to just move on and keep living. Grieving is too messy and we don’t want to hear it.
  • You’ll never meet anyone if you just keep sharing your sadness and pain.
  • I don’t want to be your friend if you’re going to be so negative.
  • Stop feeling sorry for yourself. This is just a normal part of life.

Toxic positivity?  You bet!

Grief is messy and it’s filled with a range of emotions that are important to feel and to express.

True messages about your grief:

  • Grief that is witnessed and shared, heals. It helps to be with others who understand.
  • There is nothing “wrong” with you. You just had a loved one die. It’s changed you and your life forever. Please be gentle with yourself. 
  • It’s okay to feel. It’s okay to acknowledge your grief. It’s okay to know that you’re wounded right now. Grief has its own timetable. As you do your grief work, you will see that you and life will begin to change.
  • Only you know if you ever want to be in another romantic relationship. It’s not for everyone. It’s important to share your loved one’s life. The best relationship to work on right now is the one with yourself.
  • Some friends will not be able to tolerate your grief but they might be able to share your joys. Some friends cannot share your joys but may be able to sit with you and your grief. You get to choose to whom you share your true feelings so that you can feel witnessed and heard. If you have friends who can do both, you are truly blessed. A grief group community is a safe place to share. They understand.
  • Grief is indeed a normal part of living. Nothing is permanent. Yet, this is the part that is difficult: saying goodbye to a loved one’s physical presence on this planet is painful and takes time, adjustment and healing.

J. William Worden says it so well in his well-known model of grief. He says that there are tasks that we need to do in our grieving:

Task I: To Accept the Reality of the Loss.

When someone dies, there is always a sense that it hasn’t happened. The first task of mourning involves recognizing, both emotionally and intellectually, that the person is dead and will not return. Traditional rituals, such as funerals, help many people move towards accepting the death as real.

Task II: To Process the Pain of Grief.

Society offers us many opportunities to avoid the intense pain that the loss of a loved one can bring. Processing the pain of grief helps prevent people from carrying pain into the future, where it might be more difficult to work through. Being with supportive people who validate our feelings helps us to address our pain.

Task III: To Adjust to a World Without the Deceased.

The loss of a loved one requires us to make external, internal and spiritual adjustments. Externally, we find we must fill roles and perform tasks that the deceased did. Internally, we must adjust our own sense of self in the absence of our day-to-day relationship with the loved one. Spiritually, a death can challenge our fundamental assumptions about the world and lead us to feel a lack of direction in life. Adjusting to the fact that the deceased is no longer physically with us allows us to move forward after the death.

Task IV: To Find an Enduring Connection With the Deceased in the Midst of Embarking on a New Life.
In this task, the mourner’s challenge is to find a way to stay connected to the deceased, but without preventing her or him from going on with life. It is not that the deceased is forgotten, but that the bereaved finds enjoyment in life again, while allowing themselves access to memories, feelings and thoughts that they have of their loved one. There is no set timeline to completing the set tasks, although they generally occur over months or years, not days or weeks. Worden points out that while it is essential to address these tasks to adjust to a loss, not every loss we experience challenges us in the same way.

If you find that your loved one’s death is challenging you beyond your ability to cope with it, getting support from family, friends, clergy or a professional may help.

HOPE Connection support groups are here to help you through this difficult process of grieving.

By Jo Christner, Psy.D.