A bitter drink: Introduce sugar, and the whole drink becomes sweet.
A cold bath: Introduce hot water, and the whole bath becomes warm.
A sad person: Introduce things to be happy about, and the whole person becomes...what?
How does happiness affect a person grappling with intensely negative emotions in connection with grief, illness, or any crisis? If emotions behave as a drink or a bath does, a big dose of happiness should dilute the sadness and improve overall mood, right? It seems rational. It leads, often, to people emphasizing the positive with comments in the "Look on the bright side" zone or the "Remember the silver lining" category.
People who have lost a child may hear how fortunate they are to have other children, if they do, or to have had the child for as long as they did. People who are ill may hear about how lucky they are to have good health insurance. People who have lost a loved one, a relationship, a house, or something else of utmost importance may be reminded to focus on what they have in the "positive column."
Sometimes it does help to shift focus to the good - but perhaps not every time. Perhaps it isn't such a simple equation.
Being reminded of good things can be a mixed bag. Following my brother's untimely death at the hands of a drunk driver, caring friends and family have encouraged me to focus on the good things surrounding my relationship with him -- the many years we had together, our positive professional and personal connection, the family he created -- all things for which I am intensely grateful. Sometimes, these reminders can shift me toward the positive. Other times, though, they make me feel defensive of my negative emotions, even as I appreciate the opportunity to focus on the good. This can happen even when the reminder comes from within. When I'm having a down day and I try to think about what I should be grateful for, I sometimes feel guilt at failing to snap out of my crappy mood and see all the good around me. Then this drives me further into the pit of negativity - the opposite of where I want to go.
Another perception of positive and negative emotions is that they operate like the fader on a car stereo, where the happiness is in inverse proportion to the sadness. In other words, if I feel 80% sad, I must feel 20% happy. So if someone pulls me further into the happy, it should reduce the sad, right? For me, though, it doesn't work this way either. I can feel enormously happy and brutally sad at the same time, both emotions coexisting with one having little to no effect on the other. I can feel fully grateful and positive about the good in my life, while feeling devastated about the difficulties that have befallen me.
Think of the spectrum. Depending on the situation - the light, the texture, the air - only certain colors are visible. But all of the colors and wavelengths are there, all of the time. My emotions coexist in the same way. At a given time you'll notice me displaying one feeling or another, depending on the day and what's happening around me. But they are all there, even the ones you can't see. Funny how a rainbow image often symbolizes happiness - I see it differently now, as a representation of all of the emotions together.
Yes, I'm aware of and grateful for all of the good things in my life. When I'm having a tough time, you can remind me of them. But if I don't seem to perk up, don't assume that I've rejected what you've said or that your efforts have not helped. And if I seem well and happy, know that I'm also crushed and sad inside somewhere. In fact I don't think I would feel any one emotion completely without accepting the presence of the others. It's all part of the spectrum, the combined colors reaching a level of depth and brightness no single color could achieve alone.
When people you care about are in pain, think about the spectrum of emotion. Even as you may lovingly try to shift focus to the positive, let them know that you honor everything they are feeling, and that your actions do not imply that feeling good is inherently better or that their emotions are in any way wrong. Meet them where they are, in the pool of whatever color of light washes over them now, and walk with them from there.
A previous version of this post entitled Focusing on the positive: Does it help? was originally posted on Life Without Judgment by Sarah Lyman Kravits at www.lifewithoutjudgment.com.
This post is part of Common Grief, a Healthy Living editorial initiative. Grief is an inevitable part of life, but that doesn't make navigating it any easier. The deep sorrow that accompanies the death of a loved one, the end of a marriage or even moving far away from home, is real. But while grief is universal, we all grieve differently. So we started Common Grief to help learn from each other. Let's talk about living with loss. If you have a story you'd like to share, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.