Sunday, September 19, 2010

A Muzzle for Pollyanna, Please

Now, I want to preface what I am about to say by stating that I think it is a beautiful thing to approach life with a positive attitude but, please do so with some sensitivity...

Recently, as I've been talking with people about the unfortunate circumstances of a dear friend I have been reminded of what I call The Tyranny of Positive Thinking. Let me explain. It seems since the emergence of New Age-ish you-create-your-own-reality thought there are a number of people who have become so focused on looking on the bright side that they have not only forgotten that people need to mourn their losses and grieve their injuries, but are in denial that such things are a part of the human emotional makeup.

When I told one friend about our mutual friend's accident she immediately responded, “She is SO lucky! Just think how much worse it could have been!” This is not something a person with a multiple, compound fracture wants to hear. Another friend responded to the same news by saying, “Maybe this is a blessing in disguise. It could be the opportunity she needs to change how her life has been going.”

I'm not arguing that these are both valid points but it reminded me of the comments made to me during a recent deep loss of my own. It is a wonderful, beautiful thing to give support to a friend who needs it when the time is right --- I repeat, when the time is right! But when a person's world has just been shattered by a huge loss or injury they need to have room to grieve and express their fear and their hurt and their loss. If they are denied that bad things happen not the least of which is a deep and pervasive guilt that may compound the trauma they have just experienced.

Not long ago I was talking to a woman who had lost her husband far too young a few months earlier. She was weepy and miserable (who could blame her) and she said to me, “I feel so guilty for not being able to get over this. Everybody keeps telling me I should be glad I had him as long as I did but I wanted him for the rest of my life.” She was in a lot of pain and much of the pain came from her inability to seek comfort and solace from the friends who claimed to love her. It reminded me of the friend who responded to my loss of someone I loved by saying, “Aren't you lucky to have loved someone so much that you could miss him so much.” Yeah. Thanks a bunch.

When people are denied the right to mourn their losses and grieve their injuries and disappointments they turn those negative emotions inward with self-destructive results. In more primitive times people had some mourning practices that seem over-wrought to us now but anyone who has experienced the loss of someone they genuinely loved can understand. The practice of keening, weeping and wailing aloud in the company of trusted family and friends, sounds horrible but when you are weeping and wailing on the inside the notion of being able to let it out without people rolling their eyes and telling you to toughen up is alluring. The old-fashioned habit of wearing black for a year after the loss of a loved one held much appeal to me when I was in that year. It was a signal to the world, just cut me some slack – I'm mourning.

This is not to say grieving should go on without end but one thing I've learned is that grief takes as long a it takes and, while it is a good thing to have friends who will help through the process, denying someone the right to their grief by forcing “positive thinking” on them before they can handle it is cruel.

A couple years have passed since my own loss and now I do I appreciate those friends who encourage me to move on, cheer up, see my life in a new and different way. I'm ready and I'm glad for the support in moving on. But when the wound is raw and fresh don't rub salt in it by denying someone the right to their feelings. Just put a muzzle in your Little Mary Sunshine-self and help them keen and wail. Have some sympathy and compassion. Those are virtues the world seems lacking in many areas. We need to bring them back.

Thanks for reading.   


  1. I can't speak for anyone but myself, but I grew up with two grandmothers who always greeted news like your friend's with predictions of the worst possible outcome.

    What may come across as callous indifference to the depth of someone's loss is certainly not meant that way. It's just trying to find some small ray of light or reason for hope in an otherwise awful situation.

    Perhaps it's also a tiny bit of whistling in the dark, since seeing a life turned upside down in an instant is a reminder of just how little security most of us have.

    Once again you have given me something to think about.

  2. I think you make a good point but a lot depends on where the person is at in the grieving process. I agree that those doom-and-gloomers in our past have had an impact. But it is very important to allow people space in which to grieve --- some people just don't get that.

    I remember when Mark died -- the day he died -- I called a friend to tell her and she responded, "Well, this is a good opportunity for you to work on your own writing instead of working on his all the time." I absolutely could not believe she would call his death a "good opportunity". I don't think I've ever really gotten over that from her.


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