Three days ago, my friend died. To be fair, we hadn’t spoken since high school which was many years ago, but he was someone I looked back on as an especially lovely part of that time. Since his passing, I have heard that we should “remember the better things.” That we should “be grateful” for the time he spent (in agony), living with and dying of cancer. That, yes, there is sadness, but let us turn our attention to the rest of it. And I get it. I really do. And also, he was thirty-five years old with a new baby, a beloved wife, a deep faith community, and the career of a respected scholar. His death isn’t good, and I am not grateful – not in this moment – because it is sad and new. I don’t want to remember the better things – not in this moment. I want to acknowledge that this feels awful and, in these first few days, it feels only awful. As unpleasant as that is, it is also okay.
The tee shirts, the bumper stickers, the Instagram tiles: “Good vibes only”; “Surround yourself with positive people”; “No room for negativity” – they’re all robbing you. Of course, we do not want to spend our lives wallowing. Of course, we want to enjoy the beautiful things, find beauty in the ugly things, keep our hearts in gratitude and our minds clear – no argument there. And sometimes… sometimes it just isn’t good. Sometimes someone dies young, sometimes you go through an abusive divorce, sometimes you lose your job without any prospects. Sometimes, you are just having a bad day, or your depression is finding its creative ways of creeping back in. You are allowed to simply grieve those things, to resent them, to wish they were different and to hate that they are not. Not only is it okay to feel those things, but it’s critical to living a most honest life – honest with others, and with yourself. Having those feelings, and not trying to locate their emotional antidotes, is you experiencing your life. Your amazing, exciting, stressful, traumatic, meaningful life. Advice from your friendly neighborhood therapist: don’t miss it.
When we say, “Good vibes only,” and signal to ourselves and others that only “positive people” and “positive energy” belong in our lives, we stifle ourselves and stunt our experiences. Sometimes we’re the ones with sadness, with anger, with worry. When we say, “Good vibes only,” we’re also telling people to write us off when we’re struggling and not a source of levity and light. And, to be sure, it is when we are struggling that we most long for acceptance just as we are.
Whenever I start work with a new client, I tell them this: It is not my goal for you to not feel anxious, or angry, or sad – it is for you to be able to feel anxious, angry, sad and know that it will not kill you, and that it will not last, and that your life is still wildly worth it with endlessly beautiful moments to come.
I’m mad that my friend died. Right now, I am only feeling that I am angry about it, that I am sad over it, that there is no current silver lining to his loss. And, I know that I will not always feel exactly this way. It will always be sad, but I will recall more readily one of my favorite memories of high school, which was spending time together with all of our mutual friends after senior prom, at a party in a classmate’s garage. It will happen, but not right now. I am not bringing the good vibes only. That’s okay.