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Thinking Positively

By Elaine E. Stillwell, M.A., M.S., Rockville Centre, NY

When you are heartbroken, hurting, and vulnerable, sometimes an empowering thought can lift you out of the doldrums, bring a smile to your face, and even give your attitude a do-over. After losing my two oldest children, 21 year old Denis and 19 year old Peggy in the same car accident, I read everything I could get my hands on that would tell me how to survive. I was open to all suggestions and ready to try anything that would ease my pain. I started collecting phrases, thoughts, witty sayings, any words that spoke to my heart and pointed me in the right direction.  Some were serious and others had a touch of humor. I copied them from books, cut them out from magazines and newspapers, memorized some, hung others on the refrigerator, framed a few, made favorites into bookmarks, gave some away as gifts, shared them with my husband Joe and surviving daughter Annie, so grateful to discover a way to lift my spirits and give my attitude a face-lift.  Maybe some of these challenging thoughts can help you.

Throw your heart over the fence and the rest will follow. (Ralph Waldo Emerson)

Attitude is a little thing that makes a big difference. Don’t let someone else choose it for you. Be in charge. Be open to trying a positive approach to grief. Refocus. Instead of dwelling on the loss, concentrate on what you will do with what you have left. Joe, Annie and I pooled our strength and became a formidable team creating our “New Normal” together. Our new beginnings brought some unexpected gifts in the form of new friends, new purpose, rearranged priorities, and using latent talents. Joe and I founded a TCF chapter for bereaved parents, and the rest is history. Twenty-six years later we are still Chapter Leaders, and have weathered our grief through what I call the “boomerang blessings” of reaching out to hundreds of others over the years.

Things don’t go wrong and break your heart so you can become bitter and give up.  They happen to break you down and build you up so you can be all you were intended to be. (Viktor Frankl)

This article originally appeared in Volume 11, Issue 4.

After all Viktor Frankl suffered and endured in the Holocaust, he was asked what kept him going and he replied, “To tell the world.”  I thought to myself, that’s a great motive as I deal with all this pain – tell the world about my children and how much I love them. That got me out of bed in the morning and filled me with a burning passion to write and speak about surviving. I lovingly call it “sharing Peggy and Denis with the world.”   You will find your niche too, without warning, falling gently into God’s Plan as I did, and someday He’ll explain it to all of us.

Gratitude is an appreciation of your life right now, versus where you want it. (Dr. Robert Emmons)

This one you have to practice to make it become part of you.  Dr. Emmons reminds us that people who write down things they are grateful for every day have stronger immune systems, more happiness and less reactions to negative events.  Rather than affirming what’s lacking, we bless all we have and use it wisely.  A few years after my children died, I retired from a 35 year career teaching young children, but now I am using those teaching gifts, energy and passion for a new audience – the bereaved, which has filled a big void in my life. So, get busy. This is the time for you to buy a little notebook or one of those pretty journals that are so popular these days, to start keeping track of your daily blessings. Nothing is too small to count, a lady bug, a daisy, a dog’s eager welcome, a phone call – something that you can really appreciate today. Our local newspaper called me the “Voice of the Bereaved” and that made my day. Little things count.

Life is a shipwreck but we must not forget to sing in the lifeboats. (Voltaire)

Hey, we can have bad days, but we can always find some little thing that is a positive – it could be just finding that missing sock, balancing the checkbook, traffic moving in our favor or maybe finding that impossible parking space. Oscar Wilde wisely reminds us, “If you don’t get everything you want, think of the things you don’t get that you don’t want.”  I have lost my Peggy and Denis, but I am so truly grateful for the years I had with them. “If their song is to continue, then we must do the singing,” is the mantra of our TCF Chapter.  Right out of the lifeboats, we are loud!

The pessimist sees difficulty in every opportunity. The optimist sees opportunity in every difficulty. (Joshua J. Marine) 

I can’t imagine being a pessimist! Sunshine and music always energize me, as does being surrounded with loving people. I have discovered that the person who sends out positive thoughts activates the world around him positively and certainly enjoys the positive results that come back to him.  You might have a different motivation since we all grieve differently.  As Reader’s Digest observed, “A positive attitude may not solve all your problems, but it will annoy enough people to make it worth the effort.”  Take your pick.

It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives.  It is the one that is most adaptable to change. (Bill Gates)

Being flexible, open to change, is a great start when we are grieving.  Testing new routines, creating our “New Normal,” trying new activities, seeking a spiritual connection, dealing with daily challenges, making decisions, finding what works for us – are all ways to not get stuck in a rut on our grief journey. Coping and surviving is serious work, but sometimes a light-hearted prayer can help: “Thank you, God, for standing by me so far this day. With your help, I haven’t been impatient, grumpy, judgmental, or lost my temper. But …. I’ll be getting out of bed soon, and I’ll really be needing your help even more.”  

Every thought is a seed.  If you plant crab apples, don’t count on harvesting Golden Delicious. (Bill Meyer)

If each morning I tell myself, “I will never see my children again,” my stomach does flip-flops and I feel devastated. But if each morning I say, “I am one day closer to seeing Peggy and Denis,” my face lights up and my heart sings.”  Dorothy Day advised, “Plant seeds that will flower as results in our lives, so best to remove the weeds of anger, avarice, envy and doubt, that peace and abundance many manifest for all.”  Choose your favorites carefully and start gardening!

Happiness is an attitude.  We either make ourselves miserable, or happy and strong. The amount of work is the same. (Francesca Reigler)

Attitudes are contagious.  Are yours worth catching?  Wherever you go, no matter what the weather, do you always bring your own sunshine? Your thoughts can make a big difference according to Roald Dahl, “If a person has ugly thoughts, it begins to show on their face. And when that person has ugly thoughts every day, every week, every year, the face gets uglier and uglier until it gets so ugly you can hardly bear to look at it.  A person who has good thoughts cannot ever be ugly. You can have a wonky nose and a crooked mouth and a double chin and stick-out teeth, but if you have good thoughts they will shine out of your face like sunbeams and you will always look lovely.”  That one thought could really be a mood changer! So, never miss a sunset or a rainbow because you are looking down!

Whenever anyone has offended me, I try to raise my soul so high that the offense cannot reach it. (Rene Descartes)

Some comments that are offered to comfort us, can actually sting and do the opposite. We don’t need to hear that God needed another angel, or that we have four other children, or that God gives us only as much as we can bear. Insensitive comments are the number one complaint of the bereaved. During Holy Week services, I heard the perfect words to make a prayer for this problem. At our next support group meeting, I shared my prayer, telling the group that when someone made a hurtful comment to them, simply say this prayer to themselves and they would feel much better: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do. Assholes, Amen.” You see, forgiveness has nothing to do with absolving the person from the words.  It has everything to do with relieving oneself of the burden of being a victim – letting go of the pain and transforming oneself from victim to survivor. It is the most memorized line of any program I present.

Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s own attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way. (Viktor Frankl)

How lucky we are to have freedom of choice!   People say to me, “You’ve had so much courage,” but it’s not courage, it’s the power to choose.” As Paul Duhn reminds us, “Your own mind is a sacred enclosure into which nothing harmful can enter except by your permission.”  We can control how we do our grief work and our attitude toward our healing. I make sure my children’s spirit and lives live on through my memories, ensuring I did not lose all of them. Their life force and wonderful spirit still shine in our lives. Even though they died over 25 years ago, they still make a difference in the world.  That’s the power of positive thinking.  Look for the silver lining and make “Excelsior” (ever upward) your motto!!