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In June 2014, former Penn State and Cincinnati Bengals football player Devon Still received earth shattering news. His 4-year-old daughter, Leah, was diagnosed with high-risk pediatric neuroblastoma and given a 50-50 chance of survival.
Nearly eight years later, the former NFL player is opening up about the worst thing people said to him following Leah’s cancer diagnosis.
The dad of two, 32, posted his thoughts in a candid Instagram post Wednesday.
"When Leah was diagnosed with cancer, my world was crushed. The thoughts of her dying kept playing in my head," Still wrote. "When I told people about my thoughts, they said the worst thing you can say to someone who just experienced a traumatic event...'Don't think like that. You have to remain positive.'"
Still acknowledged he knew people were trying to be helpful, but those words felt harmful and dismissive.
"We live in a world where seeing people we love in pain is uncomfortable, so we think the best thing to do is push them to keep fighting," he wrote. "But we must understand that experiencing negative thoughts and emotions after a traumatic event is POSITIVE. It means you're in tune with your emotions and not numb to life."
Still wrote that smiling or speaking positively while hurting inside is "theatrical rather than transformational."
"When we don't allow ourselves or others to experience these emotions, we don't create a space for proper healing," he said. "So allow yourself to have moments of weakness; just don't allow it to become a weak mindset."
California-based psychologist Dr. Shannon Curry told TODAY Parents that self-reflection has proven effectiveness.
“Human beings are designed for emotional and personal growth as a central component to our happiness and well-being," Curry said on the topic of toxic positivity. "And emotions are the compass in that process."
Leah, now 11, is in remission, and Still, reflecting on his experience, told TODAY Parents an easy way to acknowledge what someone is going through without minimizing their emotions.
"Simple. 'I am here for you. Just let me know how I can help,'" Still said, adding that helpful support systems listen empathetically and validate. "And then show up when they need you."
Still said sharing his perspective is important, because we live in a society that loves "the comeback story."
"We love to watch people go from tragedy to triumph, but, we are uncomfortable witnessing the middle part," he said. "The middle represents the suffering between tragedy and triumph. It is the grief, frustration, confusion people experience after an adverse life event. So, it’s important for me to use my platform to let people know that it’s okay not to be okay."