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What I Find More Supportive Than the Statement ‘Just Stay Positive’

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I will never forget the time I was reading a post on Facebook. Someone posted that their child went into cardiac arrest. I saw several comments to “just stay positive, everything will be fine.” Several hours later, the parent came back and updated that their child had passed away.

During my daughter’s battle with hypoplastic left heart syndrome, a congenital heart defect, I heard the same statement often. Just stay positive, everything will be OK. But what if everything is not OK? What if someone still dies, like my child did? This statement seems to scream at me “You must not have stayed positive enough, if only you would have stayed positive, maybe you would not have lost your child.”

There are many variations of this phrase. “Just stay positive,” “You need to just pray hard,” “Keep your chin up” or “Only think good thoughts.” In my opinion, these statements reflect our culture. We live in a society that often does not want to face or acknowledge pain. However, running from the crisis does not change anything. All the positive thinking in the world does not change the fact that the situation may be bad; someone could still die or suffer greatly. Telling someone they or their child “will be just fine” might not be helpful.

Another thing I believe it can do is to make a person feel weak in their beliefs or faith. If you tell someone everything will be OK if they pray hard, what is that saying about their beliefs or religion if everything is not OK?

Finally, and what I believe is probably the most important reason to avoid telling someone to stay positive, is that it can be minimizing. If someone has an illness, telling them to stay positive can be like telling them to toughen up. It can stop the person from opening up to you as they may begin to feel that they have to appear optimistic, maybe even happy, despite their pain.  This statement doesn’t allow someone to be authentic in their pain whether physical, emotional or both.

Here are some ideas I personally find more supportive then telling someone to “stay positive.” If you want to offer encouragement or support to someone who has an illness, try to do something practical for the family. Bring a meal, do some chores, deliver groceries, babysit, mow the lawn, pick up mail. When someone is going through a hard time, it can be difficult to have the energy to ask for help. So instead of saying “let me know if you need anything,” ask, “What is something practical I could do to lessen your load?” If the person is not able to ask for help, gently suggest something you could do. Another helpful thing is to open yourself up for conversation. Make yourself truly available to hear the pain they are going through, even if it is hard to hear. Take time for the person, ask questions, let yourself feel empathy, acknowledge the difficulty of what they are going through. Nothing has meant more to me as we battled my daughter’s heart condition and dealt with the grief of losing her then when a person cries with me and lets me be true to my emotions.

It is more than OK to send positive thoughts or pray, but my suggestion is not to make any promises. All the positive thinking in the world still may not yield a positive outcome.

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Thinkstock image by DragonImages

Originally published: May 31, 2017
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