Why you can’t look on the bright side of someone else’s trauma

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People often ask me how I come up with ideas for my columns.

I dream about having a file on my desktop filled with sketched out ideas, cut-and-pastes of interesting articles and voice notes from those moments when genius strikes whilst showering, driving or making smoothies. I could dip into the file once a month and find something brilliant at my fingertips.

This file does not exist. Instead, at the eleventh hour an idea pops into my head and refuses to leave. It sometimes pops in at 1am and I spend the rest of the night mentally composing the column, come to work and it practically writes itself. Other times it’s elusive and very frustrating and — let me tell you — mildly terrifying as deadline looms.

A few days ago an acquaintance wrote a post on Facebook that gave me pause for thought. It spoke to the idea of unintentionally minimising someone’s grief or loss by saying that ‘everything happens for a reason’ or other similar platitudes. The post suggested rather acknowledging pain without looking for a bright side, a consolation.
This idea clung to another, floating around my head, about Helen Zille and the tweets about the legacy of colonialism having a positive side. Trying to find the positive side of something terrible that happened to someone else is disconnected at best.

Mbali Ntuli, DA member of the provincial legislature in KwaZulu-Natal, reacted by explaining that ‘finding a bright side’ to colonialism is as insensitive as ‘finding a bright side’ to Nazism. Asking someone who was affected by the Holocaust to look on the bright side of anything to do with Nazis is an utterly horrific idea, I’m sure we can agree.

To be clear; I am not conflating colonialism and the Holocaust, and Mbali wasn’t either. We are connecting two cases in which trauma is minimised in an attempt to see a non-existent, insensitive, bright side. Just don’t do it.

I decided to ask my daughters what I should write about this month. Perhaps something out of the mouths of babes would result in me finishing this month’s issue. Over the last week they have worried about the drought, storms, fires — and how these things affect people. Their minds have been filled with worries and overheard stories of loss. All three unequivocally stressed that I should write about beauty. Happiness. “Something lovely, and also nature.” I could add pictures, one suggested helpfully.

This does remind me, that as dark as times get — and they have been dark of late — people generally want to be happy. We want to live optimistic lives and we don’t want to be reacting from a place of fear and anger. When those around us suffer trauma in any way, we want to make it better for them again. But there are times when brightness is not welcome. We should not ever look for the bright side of someone else’s trauma.
As clinical mental health therapist Megan Devine says, “Some things cannot be fixed, they can only be carried.” And we do not lessen the load by lessening their pain.

Sometimes it’s ok not to try spread the light, but rather to sit with the person in the dark and acknowledge that the darkness exists.

* At the time of going to print, Helen Zille had just reached a settlement with the DA in which she would apologise unreservedly for her comments about colonialism.

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