Toxic Positivity

At one of our workshops shortly before Christmas a comment from a participant caught my attention. “It’s so nice to say that losing a baby is shit without someone immediately trying to cheer me up”.

I knew exactly what she meant. One of those things nearly all of us do, instinctively is to try to find the positive in a situation when someone we love is distressed. We use phrases like “At least you know you can get pregnant”, “You can always try again”, “What’s for you won’t pass you” and it’s not limited to pregnancy or after the loss. A friend once described finding out that she couldn’t and wouldn’t have children biologically. Even after doctors had confirmed her worst fears my friend had to deal with relentless optimism from someone who, with the best will in the world, insisted that they should never give up, doctors can be wrong and there are constant new developments. When all that failed to convince her, he urged her to pray for a miracle. She needed to grieve the future child she had longed for, and he couldn’t bear to see someone he cared about in pain. A friend who lost her mother recently had a similar experience when her mother’s condition was confirmed to be terminal.

It is hard to resist the impulse to find a silver lining in someone else’s painful experience. We don’t want to see our loved ones suffer. We want to see them happy. But denying reality doesn’t change it. Telling someone they should happy will not make them happy. When someone has accepted their reality, trying to force them to accept an imaginary upside comes across as dismissive and even a little judgemental; “Look at all you have to be grateful for and you’re still moaning over this?!” “There’s loads of people worse off than YOU!”

It’s ok to say “This is awful. I am so sorry you are going through this. I wish I could help.” Or better yet “I will help you through this”.  It feels uncomfortable for the person on the outside to just leave it at that, but for the person who is suffering it is a valuable and necessary acknowledgement of their pain.

One of the reasons we created our Pregnancy Loss Journals is because it can be so difficult to get the kind of response that we need from our support system and community. Sadness, anger, disappointment, frustration etc. are all part of real life. Grief is not pretty. Lots of the thoughts and emotions that come with losing a baby are actually pretty ugly (“How come she got to have her baby and I lost mine”?). But they are real, and authentic and part of the human experience and need to be honoured.

With the benefit of time, therapy and support I have found many positives that have come from losing my daughter Alex at 26 weeks. I met amazing friends through my support group, I left a job that I hated, and I think I became a better mother, certainly a more honest one. But it has taken me years to experience these unexpected benefits. In the throes of grief the last thing I wanted to hear was “Cheer up, you’ll be a better person for going through this” even if it was true.

I don’t do New Year’s resolutions (well, I don’t admit to doing them) but if you do, add “avoid toxic positivity in 2022” to your list and get rid of a whole load of emotional baggage.

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