The problem with positivity is that it rejects grief— a valid emotion essential to the healing process.
Growing up, I was known as the girl who was always smiling. I remember my fifth-grade volleyball coach saying, “Marell, I don’t think I can ever see you get angry.” I just stood there and smiled, knowing that I very well could. But growing into my teen and even young adult years, I never lost this image of the girl who was always smiling. I absolutely loved it when teachers, family, and friends would characterize me this way. I saw positivity as more appealing and attractive than constant negativity. After all, who doesn’t?
Although I’ve had my fair share of adversities, no one ever saw me upset or even knew about my problems because I never allowed them to.
Being positive became associated with being strong, and there is something terribly self-destructive about this.
When I was diagnosed with cancer, one of the most difficult challenges for me was my effort to maintain this image- to uphold this expectation that people saw and constantly reminded me of in hopes that it would “keep me strong” in the midst of pain. The problem with this was that at times, all I really wanted to do was fall apart.
I went into treatment with high spirits. I made jokes to my nurses about my love for food and putting on weight, jokes with my family about dying my hair with “frosted tips” as soon as it would start to grow back, anything to show my loved ones that I was positive, and therefore okay. But there were times when I was vulnerable and depressed and just couldn’t find it in me to be positive, and it my took my supporters a while to understand how to deal with my sadness.
As a fairly positive person, I found theories of “positive thought” to be the most annoying pieces of advice anyone could offer me. I did not share my thoughts with people who told me to “think positive,” “seize the day,” or worst of all…”look on the bright side.” Because if I could, I wouldn’t be so upset right now.
It came to a point where all I could do was cry and isolate myself. My sisters would try endlessly to pry out what it was that triggered a specific breakdown, but all I could say was “I’m exhausted.” I had no other explanation for it.
My mom always worried that any negative emotions would have physical consequences on my health, she would come into my room and say: “Marell com’on, you’re better than this.” She did not mean this in a negative way whatsoever– my mother is the most supportive person I know, but during that time, I was visibly more depressed than usual. My smile had completely disappeared, and she had a right to worry about me. I would often find myself saying, “Mom, I’m fine, I’m just sad. Let me be sad. I’m allowed to be sad.”
I knew I was going to be okay, but at that time, nothing felt okay. At that time I was battling a sickness. At that time, the things that used to make me happy no longer did. I was dreading how much more there was yet to overcome, I feared what other road bumps would come along the way, and I wasn’t sure how much more I was willing to take. I was young, had given up school, work, and everything that made me “me.” I didn’t feel like myself, I didn’t act like myself, and I missed everything about my old life.
Being in treatment for a little over two years, my family eventually learned how to help me work through my bad days. The best thing they did was tell me: “I know, I’m sorry. You’re almost there” and take me out for a drive to clear my thoughts, lay next to me while I cried it out– just be there for me. There was nothing anyone could do but to let it pass.
Don’t get me wrong; sometimes it is absolutely necessary to remind someone to stay positive. Negative thoughts do lead to negative outcomes, but when someone is so utterly overwhelmed with grief, part of the grief is not being able to look on the bright side. Please don’t make light of the situation by suggesting positivity as an easy fix.
I need your empathy, not your sympathy. Put yourself in my shoes, try to understand where I’m coming from- level with me. Passing platitudes of positivity off for advice will only distance yourself from me. It puts you on a spectrum where I’m not, and at that moment, positivity doesn’t resonate with how I’m feeling.
So, forget about positivity right now.
Grief comes with losses of any kind. We grieve when we lose a job, a relationship, a loved one, even when we lose our sense of self or our self-constructed expectations. The worst thing we can do is reject our right to grieve in efforts to stay positive because this will only lead to guilt when we can’t. Shed all of those images that you harbour of sadness and tears as weakness. They are emotions. They are bodily reactions to your circumstance. Don’t avoid the process.
I wish I could tell you that the pain will end soon, but I can’t, and you probably know this yourself. But when things just aren’t going your way, or when you just plain feel like it,
Cry. Scream. Shout. Grieve, then sleep.
As Megan Devine says perfectly:
“Some things in life cannot be fixed. They can only be carried.”
When we grieve, we are ultimately accepting our situation, and only then can we move towards healing. Learn to live with your grief, let it come and go. Sometimes there are only bad days, and better days- and that is alright for now. Strive for the day you can feel positive again, because it will come, but never reject your sadness.
Until then, we’re all rooting for you.
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