Toxic positivity and its impact on pet loss grief

It feels like people are talking about “toxic positivity” a lot at the moment and challenging the “positive vibes only” attitude that’s been pervasive in recent years (especially on social media), recognising that it actually does more harm than good.

Today, we wanted to talk about the impact of toxic positivity on someone experiencing pet loss grief.

What is toxic positivity?

Essentially, toxic positivity is the idea that, regardless of the circumstances, you should only ever have a positive, happy or optimistic outlook, ignoring things that are painful until they’re forced to go away.

Toxic positivity is the attitude that you should dust yourself off, smile and be grateful for what you have because “there’s always someone worse off”. 

Well, yes, of course, there will always be someone somewhere who is “worse off” (however we rank these things) but that doesn’t make your pain less valid!

This kind of positivity is toxic because it ignores or denies the messier parts of being human. It tells us that happiness is good but other emotions are bad and shouldn’t be expressed.

But the thing is that life isn’t relentlessly happy, something you know only too well, having experienced a loss in your own life. Grief is part of the fabric of human existence and when we don’t face difficult emotions in life, they almost always come back to bite us!

Toxic positivity and grief

There’s no doubt that grieving is hard and it brings up some challenging emotions. Anger, guilt, sadness, regret – these can all be difficult to process and for others to be around. But these are all important feelings that you have a right to experience and express.

The discomfort around grief, of not knowing what to say to make things better, makes people lean on toxic positivity. 

You may well have had people say things to you like, “It’s a blessing in disguise” or “They’re in a better place” about your loss. Worse still, many pet carers hear sentiments such as, “At least you can get another” (as though you’re shopping for a new mobile phone!) or “At least it wasn’t someone in your family who died” when, actually, your pet was very much part of your inner circle.

While usually well-meaning, these phrases – designed to put a positive spin on things – can leave you feeling unseen, unsupported and alone in your grief. 

This can lead to you masking your grief and experiencing:

  • Shame and avoidance
  • Anger
  • Mental health problems
  • Other negative stress responses such as anxiety and depression
  • Faking happiness to appease others

Grief is not something you can power through. The pain you’re experiencing is a huge neon sign that you have feelings that need to be felt and will not be pushed away indefinitely by a fake smile.

Internalising toxic positivity

A major problem with toxic positivity is that we can end up internalising it and believing that we should behave in certain ways.

You may find yourself trying to avoid the hard emotions you’re feeling or downplaying them (“I don’t know why I’m still upset” or “I know there are worst things happening in the world” or “It’s silly that I’m this upset about an animal”). Perhaps you’re keeping yourself busy, avoiding coming home, working harder or socialising more because you feel you have to focus on the positives.

But the truth is that grief needs to be felt. It’s the only way to move forwards.

What about toxic negativity?

It is worth pointing out that toxic negativity affects how we grieve too. Many of us end up feeling like we have to stay stuck in our pain, frozen in the moment of loss, because it’s the only way to stay close to our pet, the last reminder we have of them.

There’s also the fear that if we feel anything other than sadness or let go of our guilt or anger, then we’re somehow betraying our pet or forgetting how much we loved them.

This isn’t true at all. Love never dies.

Not all positivity is toxic – it can be healthy

There’s a huge difference between toxic positivity and a healthy, genuine positivity that does help people cope with grief.

Healthy positivity allows you to acknowledge and feel the hard emotions in life while recognising that there is space for good things too, if not today then one day.

Positivity in grief is being able to say, “I am heartbroken that my pet died and the future may not look the way I want it to but I know that I will be able to experience joy and purpose again”.

Those who push toxic positivity would have us believe that the only way to be whole and well in life is to be endlessly happy, to the exclusion of everything else, but that’s peddling a lie. If you think about your relationships, the things you’ve accomplished in life, and what gives your life meaning, it’s probably a messy mix of highs and lows. That’s the human condition.

True positivity can co-exist with pain. It doesn’t categorise emotions as good or bad because it understands that emotions simply ARE. 

The key to being positive in a healthy way is to have compassion and empathy for all of your feelings. It’s about saying, “My pain is valid. I don’t need to justify my grief to anyone else and I have a right to experience and express it”.

With time, healthy positivity will help you develop coping mechanisms for your pet loss grief that strengthen and support you rather than harm you. It will inspire you to find purpose in your life and to create a new relationship with your pet through the memories you carry with you.

Very best wishes from Shailen and The Ralph Site team
The Ralph Site, non-profit pet loss support

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