The Lack of Reason Behind "Everything Happens For a Reason"
There is a blog post going around called Everything Doesn’t Happen For a Reason that so many people have sent me, I need to outline my response. It is written by Tim Lawrence, an astute and well-spoken gentleman currently residing in a monastery. It is cogent and intense and honest to the bone. So I would like to address his points one by one and give you both my professional and personal thoughts. This is a topic that is so, so essential for the grieving and those around them – and I agree with Tim that the conversation MUST change. But I also want to examine these very subtle points that Tim is bringing up and the fact that how we language these things is so, so key – the right word or phrase can be a beacon in the darkness – and the wrong one can leave lifelong scars and leave us into a seemingly endless abyss.
Tim’s premise is exactly in line with my own on the subject of that saying that we have all heard, that “everything happens for a reason.” He writes passionately about how detrimental this phrase can be, no matter how well-meaning the speaker may be. He says that this expression is part of the cultural conspiracy that keeps us from grieving in a healthy way, or even grieving at all. It teaches that our feelings of rage and heartache do not matter, because by doing so, we are questioning that Grand Plan, that Reason, for which this terrible tragedy occurred. And he quibbles deeply with the idea that a loss HAD to happen in order for this person to grow or move forward.
He makes his feelings pretty clear: “That’s the kind of bullshit that destroys lives.”
So why do people use this phrase in the first place? How many times have you heard it? Does it strike you as helpful or did it set you back a step when you heard it? It falls under the category of Cultural Reflexes – as does so many of the catchphrases we hear when we are grieving. We use them without thinking because grief makes us so uncomfortable, so uneasy and distressed, we just fill in the blank silence with whatever pops into our heads.
And I agree wholeheartedly with Tim, that it is one of the phrases we use that KEEPS US from the healthy grieving that MUST happen in order for us to become functional again. “Getting Over It” – “Moving On” – these are destructive and debilitating. They set a goal that is impossible and set us up to fail in our healing.
How we language grief in this country, how we talk about it, or rather how we don’t talk about it, frankly, stinks. And let me tell you from my own legacy of loss, those words sting – and they stick – they become the memories of that loss that never go away.
But because Tim is so clearly committed to word choice, I want to parse out a few things.
This had to happen. I absolutely agree with Tim that the premise that something as terrible as the death of a child, a plane crash or 9/11 happened because someone was trying to teach the griever a lesson – a lesson they would never have learned had this NOT happened. We may say this when we are hunting for a way to explain the unexplainable. But it completely disregards the griever’s pain and suffering, and implies that they shouldn’t be hurting. It encourages people to crush the very feelings they need to be expressing.
Reason. I absolutely do not buy the preordained reason theory. As I said, I find it cruel and can prevent people from healing. BUT – and this is a VERY big But – I also absolutely believe that we can CREATE a reason out of our pain, and that can be a path towards the healing of our heart and spirit.
By way of example for both of these points, I go back to my own story. When my mother died suddenly in 1995, it pretty much crushed me. We had had a difficult relationship and I was a pretty screwed up kid at the time. We had not spoken in about two years – and suddenly, with a phone call at midnight, she was gone. I had what they then called a nervous breakdown. I couldn’t work, I was going to therapy twice a week, and I could barely hold a thought in my head. I was afraid to go to sleep because of the nightmares. Then I switched to watching 17 hours of TV a day and drinking myself to sleep. There are huge chunks of that summer that I do not remember at all.
As I crawled my way out of the abyss, I began to heal. Over many years of therapy, and moving to New York, I had many jobs and relationships, troubles and mistakes and regrets galore. I have worked very hard at building who I am, building a life that is confident (most of the time), grounded and aware. I have gotten married and started my healing practice through years of study and diligence.
Do I still miss my Mother? Of course. Very often, in fact. But here is the great ironic twist of my life. My mother was a broken, unhappy woman, who died alone too young. I wish I could have helped her with the knowledge I have now. BUT – I would not have that knowledge if she had not died! In fact, I do not know who I would be if her death had not forced me to look very, very hard at who I am and create the path that I am on now.
So – does that mean my mother’s death happened for a reason? Absolutely not. I created purpose out of my brokenness – I chose to learn and grow and work my ass off on who I am. I think Mom and I would have gotten along beautifully now. But she is not here. And it is just a tragedy of life that this is so. There is no Reason. I built my healing and success painstakingly over decades – I became my own Reason.
And that is what I teach my clients. To CHOOSE to heal – to KNOW, in their bones, that it IS doable. Though our culture teaches us all the time how powerless we are, in those dark hours, it is important to know that all is not lost and you can create your New Normal now that this loss or change has occurred. Your Normal has moved – it is time to build a new one. And that is totally doable.
So to go back to Tim’s article – the idea that Mom HAD to die for me to become who I am is ludicrous. If she were alive, I would just be someone else. I have no way of knowing what that path looks like, because that is not what happened. I will never know, and that is a fact.
Responsibility. The idea that we have a responsibility for a rape or the death of a child is insulting and again, dis-empowers us in our healing, I totally agree. What resonated for me is when Tim says:
“You take responsibility for how you choose to live in the wake of the horrors that confront you….”
That is exactly what I am talking about – I took responsibility for what I built and became in the wake of my mother’s death – and the 30+ losses that have followed.
And finally, Getting Over It. I can’t stand that phrase! It is one of my Ten Tall Tales of Grief & Loss, and I discuss it on my blog HERE. It sets us up to fail at this process of healing – because there is no getting OVER. It is about transforming our pain into something better, and honoring our loved ones. I call it Weaving Your Loss Into the Landscape of Your Life. It is permanently part of you and part of your story, and you will have a relationship with this loss for a very long time. So you’d better get to know it.
This expression sets you up to fail because when you find that you are trying to attain something unattainable, you feel like a failure. Then you have that to deal with on top of the grieving. So I strongly advocate for people not using this phrase of such helplessness. In terms of what to do instead, Tim states it beautifully and gracefully, so I will not try to improve upon it. Read his article.
I am anti-platitude. Just in general, yes, but also in the grieving process. Any of them is belittling, dis-empowering, painful and destructive. They are a huge reason why I wrote my book, Putting Out the Fire: Nurturing Mind, Body & Spirit in the First Week of Loss and Beyond, to give people truths that actually reflect what authentic grief is like and to give you tools that actually heal and make sense instead of the platitudes.
The other reason is so people can see that falling apart for a while is good – it’s okay that I had that summer to break down. I needed to scream and delve deep, and go down the rabbit hole for a while. And I still honor those emotions when they come up – for my mother, or any of those 30+ losses (As of 2020, over 40 and rising). I sob, I write, I shut down – whatever I need to do. I lean in – and come out the other side cleansed and ready to keep going.
We teach grievers that their emotional wreckage is unacceptable, that it must be buried and that there is no getting over any loss. We are just stuck with them. I have found that this is much more destructive than the pain we feel – burying the pain makes it infinitely worse. The Reason IS the healing – live the Reason – Become the Reason – Create the Reason, yes – but that choice, that journey is entirely in your hands – and no one else’s.
Thank you, Tim, for adding your passionate insight and wisdom to this most important discussion.