Do you know the distinction between grief and mourning? Grief is our internal reaction to any situation of loss, or how you feel within yourself; mourning is how we express and communicate those feelings outside of ourselves.
Sadly grief and mourning don’t always harmonize in practice. There is often a “dissonance” between the experience and the expression. Think about it! When someone dies, inside yourself you feel like your heart is breaking, your world turned upside down.
Then someone asks, “How are you?”
The grieving person puts on a brave smile, and responds “I’m fine.” Inside they feel devastated, yet they choose to project a brave front, a good face on the situation.
Why does this happen? The conflict is fuelled by people who say, “Now you have to look on the bright side. You need to focus on the good things in your life.”
The subtle suggestion is that it not okay to be sad, leaving the grieving person feeling confused and conflicted.
It is known as “toxic positivity” and we have all probably done it at some point. The phrase refers to the concept that keeping positive is the right way to live your life. It suggests only focusing on positive things and rejecting or avoiding anything that may trigger negative emotions.
Comments like this cause someone feeling torn apart, caught between whether to be honest about their true feelings of grief and devastation; or to put forward the brave face that people want (and are relieved!) to see.
One lady put it succinctly: “Not being able to talk to people about sad things made it all feel worse. I wore a smile, but it felt like a gag. On the outside, I looked like the poster child for resilience, but on the inside I was choking on the overwhelming sadness I felt.
What was worse, people seemed to prefer the fake smiling version of me, even though they must have suspected that it really was all just an act.”
There’s a very good reason why toxic positivity should be named and shamed. It leaves the grieving person feeling lonely, isolated, abandoned and worst of all, phony. You can’t feel truly loved by someone if you can’t share negative emotions with them, or be sad or scared or angry around them. It’s how we bond.
As a friend once wisely commented, “Grief is good for body mind and soul. It’s just not so good for the image.”
A recent Internet meme refers to people wanting to “feel seen”, which means “I am glad that someone understands me”. It expressed the desire that we want to be acknowledged in our complexity, even when it isn’t pretty. It pleads, “Please notice that I am not doing so well, even if I pretend that I am.”
Sharing sadness is a healthy and normal human social behaviour. Feeling loved means being comfortable showing our whole messy selves to each other … even if it’s not good for the “image”.
In healthy relationships, when we share our sorrows, fears, and frustrations with trusted others, it actually creates feelings of connection, of being heard and understood. Sharing our true feelings, rather than hiding them, actually elicits compassion and assistance from those who are open to accepting us as wounded people.
Admittedly not everyone is emotionally able to do that. Some people prefer to avoid the sad realities of life, and their defence mechanism is “toxic positivity.”
But life is difficult. There are no easy answers to pain and loss and suffering. It is always a struggle. It is much more difficult to “get through” hard times on your own, without sharing them with other people. That’s why people attend community grief groups or talk to counsellors … but why not add “friends” to that list?
Toxic positivity statements to avoid include:
“Maybe it’s for the best.” “It’s a blessing in disguise.” “They are in a better place.” “There must be a purpose in this.” “You’ve got to be strong.” “Life must go on.” “Get a hold of yourself.” “Look on the bright side. Don’t wallow in self pity.”
Rather use statements like:
“I’m sorry.” “Tell me how you feel.” “I can’t imagine how painful this must be.” “It’s hard to see any meaning in this right now.” “You must really miss them.” “I’d like to help you through this.” “It’s OK to hurt and to grieve.”
Ask questions that invite people to expand on what they are feeling, like “Tell me more,” or “Can you share what that was like?” “How did you feel about that?” Most of all, be willing just to sit with people in the silence. Don’t feel you have to say anything. Just “be there” for them.
At the very least, people shouldn’t tell someone how to heal from something they haven’t been through themselves.