Trying To Be Positive Doesn’t Work – Especially When You’re Grieving

I originally wrote this entry on 28 October 2010 at AgileLiving.net. The responses can still be found at the original post.

After my post sharing about the death and birth of our little girl, I was flooded with emails – people sharing their stories of similar experiences, people expressing gratitude for something they resonated with in my story that enabled them to move themselves along just a little further in their own healing journey, and people sharing kind and love-filled wishes and blessings. Thank you to all of you who’ve been in touch – your reaching out to us has helped our healing journey so so much. I’m convinced that this kind of connection is the greatest source of resilience and healing available to us.

I’m still working through all the emails, but I wanted to respond to something that I’m coming across repeatedly in your emails. Many of you have said something along the lines of:

“Your ability to be so positive through this situation is admirable/ amazing/ inspiring, etc…”

Hmmmm…

It’s a popular myth that we “should” be positive through difficult times

The rise of positive psychology and strengths-based approaches to personal development has played a big role in making psychology accessible and useful to the average person, and I definitely sit more in this camp than the traditional pathologizing Freudian psychotherapy model I was first trained in as a Social Worker. But one of the things that often worries me is that positive psychology is often interpreted to mean that we “should” be positive all the time, even through difficult situations, trauma and loss.

Even more concerning is the idea of “The Law of Attraction” and dodgy movies like “The Secret” that promote the idea that your thoughts magically attract things and events – so you should think positive thoughts if you want to attract positive experiences into your life. Negative thoughts and feelings in response to difficult situations will supposedly attract more difficult situations into your life. The overarching message is that the “right” way to respond to difficult situations, traumas and losses is by being positive.

I wanted to respond to this because I don’t want my post to be misunderstood to be promoting the idea that you “should” be positive if you have a difficult experience or major loss. This is a dangerous idea that can add to your pain instead of lessening your pain as you might have hoped it would. I’ll explain why I say it’s dangerous in a moment, but first let me clarify what was going on for us when I wrote that post…

We were – and still are – feeling plenty of “negative” feelings

I know there was a lot of talk about love and gratitude in that post, but don’t let that deceive you into thinking that it’s all rainbows and unicorns for us. Even though it wasn’t the experience of parenting that we’d hoped for, it was a genuinely amazing to meet a little person – our little person – that we created out of nothing and grew inside my belly. Even in her lifelessness, she had us awestruck and captivated by her brilliance.

But it hasn’t escaped us that, if she’d lived on, we’d have continued to have more of those kind of awe-filled experiences on a daily basis. Knowing this delivers fresh heartbreak everyday.

I’ve never experienced this depth of sadness before. I have plenty of “negative” thoughts that pass through me – stories about how it’s all unfair, lots of “if-only-I-did-this-or-that,” stories, isolating stories about other people judging our response to losing our baby, and plenty of stories about the hopelessness and sadness of what happened, how my life is meaningless now and how this is going to ruin the rest of our lives.

If the Law of Attraction was true, I’d have attracted a serious tsunami of shit into my life these past 3 weeks since Juggernaut passed away, what with all my “negative vibes.” And yet we’ve never been showered by so much love and generosity!

So, there are lots of negative thoughts and feelings. And yet we still feel the love and a deep sense of “all is well”

We weren’t trying to be positive, and we still aren’t. We’re both just feeling what we feel and we were both genuinely shocked to find that delivering our lifeless baby could be a very precious experience that filled us with love, peace and gratitude. I thought it would be dread-filled, painful and awful. It was. But it was also precious and love-filled. All at the same time.

If you’ve ever had a great trauma or loss, you’ll know what the pain can be like. Part of the reason that my post focused so much on love and gratitude was that I was just so freaking’ surprised and bloody grateful that it was possible to feel love and gratitude and peace during such a tough time in our lives. I was bowled over by the grace in that and wanted to treasure every bit of it. It’s what’s sustained us over these past weeks and I’m sure it will continue to do so in the years ahead. Who wouldn’t grab that with both hands?

“Negative” and “positive” feelings don’t actually exist separately

We tend to polarize our feelings as either negative or positive and we tend to believe that situations make us feel either negative or positive feelings – never both. But feelings aren’t innately negative or positive and most of the time the cards we’re dealt in life elicit a mix of emotions that we feel all at the same time.

You can feel relief, peace, awe, loved, love and even joy amidst your sadness, shock, disappointment, anger, fear and grief. I’m convinced that when you’re grieving, your heart is extra-sensitive, like an open wound, so that you see and feel everything more clearly and strongly – both the so-called negative and positive emotions. The awe and love that our little girl inspired in us is inseparable from the sadness that we feel knowing that she won’t live and grow and make new memories along with us over the rest of our lives.

So feel it all – even if it doesn’t fit your story

When the shit hits the fan, we start telling ourselves stories about what a catastrophe we’ve had and how bad it all is and we expect to just feel bad. We don’t expect to also be able to feel the feelings that we most want – feelings like love, peace and gratitude. I feel lucky that our Juggernaut’s birth and death was such a mind-blowing experience. We didn’t have to try to look for the love, peace and gratitude. It smacked us over the head. It felt surreal to feel it in the midst of our trauma and loss, but the love, peace and gratitude was undeniably there.

As things settle down and life goes on, we’ve now moved into that next phase of loss, where we’ve survived the initial trauma and now we’re integrating the experience and feeling it gently, gradually rearrange every little part of who we are and how we live. And I’ve noticed that I’m still surprised when I find myself feeling love, peace or gratitude amongst the pain. It doesn’t fit my story that we’ve had an awful thing happen – an awful thing that makes people feel really bad. But I’m learning to more easily recognize and welcome the love, peace and gratitude when it’s there, and to adapt my stories to include the love, peace and gratitude that’s there.

So, all this to say…

Trying to be positive doesn’t work – especially when you’re dealing with major loss

Don’t deny your so-called negative feelings. Don’t do affirmations in a desperate effort to try to see the positive side of a truly gut-wrenching situation. Sit with and let yourself feel whatever you feel. All emotions are safe and healthy to feel, and a sign that you’re alive and well, and experiencing life fully.

My sadness comes in waves and I still cry a bit everyday. But I’ve noticed that if I feel it rather than resisting it, the deep sadness lasts just 20 to 45 minutes and then it passes. And the love, peace and gratitude is there again. It’s only when I resist feeling the so-called negative feelings or tell myself that I “should” be feeling something else that the difficult feelings stay with me all day and start to feel all-consuming.

So I’m learning to welcome the sadness, knowing that it’s an introverted creature who demands my full attention, but favors short, occasional visits with generous space for us both in between visits.

And I’m learning that I can stay open to feeling love, peace and gratitude through any experience – even when it’s unexpected. And I can trust that it will be there when I need it – I don’t need to force it. It’s a gift of grace and a part of being the complex, multi-dimensional creatures that we are.

What about you?

Where is your story preventing you from experiencing the full range of emotions available to you?

What do you need in order to be able to stop trying to feel what you “should” feel and allow yourself to feel what’s there?

Where in your life have you not been noticing the love, peace and gratitude because you hadn’t expected to find it there?

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