everything doesn't happen for a reason

Written by Tim Lawrence and lovingly shared with me by a friend.

I emerge from this conversation dumbfounded. I've seen this a million times before, but it still gets me every time.

I’m listening to a man tell a story. A woman he knows was in a devastating car accident; her life shattered in an instant. She now lives in a state of near-permanent pain; a paraplegic; many of her hopes stolen.

He tells of how she had been a mess before the accident, but that the tragedy had engendered positive changes in her life. That she was, as a result of this devastation, living a wonderful life.

And then he utters the words. The words that are responsible for nothing less than emotional, spiritual and psychological violence:

Everything happens for a reason. That this was something that had to happen in order for her to grow.

That's the kind of bullshit that destroys lives. And it is categorically untrue.

It is amazing to me—after all these years working with people in pain—that so many of these myths persist. The myths that are nothing more than platitudes cloaked as sophistication. The myths that preclude us from doing the one and only thing we must do when our lives are turned upside down: grieve.

You know exactly what I'm talking about. You've heard these countless times. You've probably even uttered them a few times yourself. And every single one of them needs to be annihilated.

Let me be crystal clear: if you've faced a tragedy and someone tells you in any way, shape or form that your tragedy was was meant to be, that it happened for a reason, that it will make you a better person, or that taking responsibility for it will fix it, you have every right to remove them from your life.

Grief is brutally painful. Grief does not only occur when someone dies. When relationships fall apart, you grieve. When opportunities are shattered, you grieve. When dreams die, you grieve. When illnesses wreck you, you grieve.

So I’m going to repeat a few words I’ve uttered countless times; words so powerful and honest they tear at the hubris of every jackass who participates in the debasing of the grieving:

Some things in life cannot be fixed. They can only be carried. 

These words come from my dear friend Megan Devine, one of the only writers in the field of loss and trauma I endorse. These words are so poignant because they aim right at the pathetic platitudes our culture has come to embody on a increasingly hopeless level. Losing a child cannot be fixed. Being diagnosed with a debilitating illness cannot be fixed. Facing the betrayal of your closest confidante cannot be fixed.

They can only be carried.

I hate to break it to you, but although devastation can lead to growth, it often doesn't. The reality is that it usually destroys lives. And the real calamity is that this happens precisely because we've replaced grieving with advice. With platitudes. With our absence.

I now live an extraordinary life. I've been deeply blessed by the opportunities I've had and the radically unconventional life I've built for myself. Yet even with that said, I'm hardly being facetious when I say that loss has not in and of itself made me a better person. In fact, in many ways it's hardened me.

While so much loss has made me acutely aware and empathetic of the pains of others, it has made me more insular and predisposed to hide. I have a more cynical view of human nature, and a greater impatience with those who are unfamiliar with what loss does to people.

Above all, I've been left with a pervasive survivor’s guilt that has haunted me all my life. This guilt is really the genesis of my hiding, self-sabotage and brokenness.

In short, my pain has never been eradicated, I've just learned to channel it into my work with others. I consider it a great privilege to work with others in pain, but to say that my losses somehow had to happen in order for my gifts to grow would be to trample on the memories of all those I lost too young; all those who suffered needlessly, and all those who faced the same trials I did early in life, but who did not make it.

I'm simply not going to do that. I'm not going to construct some delusional narrative fallacy for myself so that I can feel better about being alive. I'm not going to assume that God ordained me for life instead of all the others so that I could do what I do now. And I'm certainly not going to pretend that I've made it through simply because I was strong enough; that I became "successful" because I "took responsibility."

There’s a lot of “take responsibility” platitudes in the personal development space, and they are largely nonsense. People tell others to take responsibility when they don’t want to understand.

Because understanding is harder than posturing. Telling someone to “take responsibility” for their loss is a form of benevolent masturbation. It’s the inverse of inspirational porn: it’s sanctimonious porn.

Personal responsibility implies that there’s something to take responsibility for. You don’t take responsibility for being raped or losing your child. You take responsibility for how you choose to live in the wake of the horrors that confront you, but you don't choose whether you grieve. We're not that smart or powerful. When hell visits us, we don't get to escape grieving.

This is why all the platitudes and fixes and posturing are so dangerous: in unleashing them upon those we claim to love, we deny them the right to grieve.

In so doing, we deny them the right to be human. We steal a bit of their freedom precisely when they're standing at the intersection of their greatest fragility and despair.

No one—and I mean no one—has that authority. Though we claim it all the time.

The irony is that the only thing that even can be "responsible" amidst loss is grieving.

So if anyone tells you some form of get over it, move on, or rise above, let them go.

If anyone avoids you amidst loss, or pretends like it didn’t happen, or disappears from your life, let them go.

If anyone tells you that all is not lost, that it happened for a reason, that you’ll become better as a result of your grief, let them go.

Let me reiterate: all of those platitudes are bullshit

You are not responsible to those who try to shove them down your throat. You can let them go.

I’m not saying you should. That is up to you, and only up to you. But I want you to understand that you can.

I've grieved many times in my life. I've been overwhelmed with shame and self-hatred so strong it’s nearly killed me.

The ones who helped—the only ones who helped—were those who were there. And said nothing.

In that nothingness, they did everything.

I am here—I have lived—because they chose to love me. They loved me in their silence, in their willingness to suffer with me, alongside me, and through me. They loved me in their desire to be as uncomfortable, as destroyed, as I was, if only for a week, an hour, even just a few minutes.

Most people have no idea how utterly powerful this is.

Are there ways to find "healing" amidst devastation? Yes. Can one be "transformed" by the hell life thrusts upon them? Absolutely. But it does not happen if one is not permitted to grieve. Because grief itself is not an obstacle.

The obstacles come later. The choices as to how to live; how to carry what we have lost; how to weave a new mosaic for ourselves? Those come in the wake of grief. It cannot be any other way.

Grief is woven into the fabric of the human experience. If it is not permitted to occur, its absence pillages everything that remains: the fragile, vulnerable shell you might become in the face of catastrophe.

Yet our culture has treated grief as a problem to be solved, an illness to be healed, or both. In the process, we've done everything we can to avoid, ignore, or transform grief. As a result, when you're faced with tragedy you usually find that you're no longer surrounded by people, you're surrounded by platitudes.

What to Offer Instead

When a person is devastated by grief, the last thing they need is advice. Their world has been shattered. This means that the act of inviting someone—anyone—into their world is an act of great risk. To try and fix or rationalize or wash away their pain only deepens their terror.

Instead, the most powerful thing you can do is acknowledge. Literally say the words:

I acknowledge your pain. I am here with you.

Note that I said with you, not for you. For implies that you're going to do something. That is not for you to enact. But to stand with your loved one, to suffer with them, to listen to them, to do everything but something is incredibly powerful.

There is no greater act than acknowledgment. And acknowledgment requires no training, no special skills, no expertise. It only requires the willingness to be present with a wounded soul, and to stay present, as long as is necessary.

Be there. Only be there. Do not leave when you feel uncomfortable or when you feel like you're not doing anything. In fact, it is when you feel uncomfortable and like you're not doing anything that you must stay.

Because it is in those places—in the shadows of horror we rarely allow ourselves to enter—where the beginnings of healing are found. This healing is found when we have others who are willing to enter that space alongside us. Every grieving person on earth needs these people.

Thus I beg you, I plead with you, to be one of these people.

You are more needed than you will ever know.

And when you find yourself in need of those people, find them. I guarantee they are there.

Everyone else can go.

Photographer unknown, from Tim Lawrence's blog: The Adversity Within: Shining Light on Dark Places


  1. The timing of this post was perfect for me. Thank you

  2. Yes, we get this comment and many other common things that just slip out of the mouths of mostly well meaning but often not deep thinking folks. The ones I know will not ever see these beautiful essays, or even the ones that are more direct like "10 Things Not to Say..".

    Where we lived, when our then 5 year old was diagnosed with a high risk combo of lymphoma/leukemia, the comments came straight off that list of what not to say. It must be the "go to list" for people. But they were well meaning, truly, they were and that was what they could muster out, because many of them were shaken, sad and hurting. The community response was such that whatever they said did not matter, as what they did as so wonderful. Some of the kindest people just couldn't say what they felt but felt they had to say something. '

    So many of these articles are popping up on what to say, what not to say, that it's confusing to anyone trying to keep track of these things. Especially those who are truly challenged in this regard. Given the number of those who say and maybe even believe that "everything happens for a reason", that may well be the best thing to say to a person in hardship--the odds may well be on your side that the person wants to hear this, and gives that person and perhaps many others, comfort.
    Also, who knows? Maybe it is true. No definitive proof either way. Of course, even if there is a reason or reason, it may be that we won't like what they are The reasons for some catastrophes certainly did not make me feel any better, likely worse. And once you get beyond the surface reasons of a condition or event, it still comes down to questions and more reasons or not. My thoughts are with Tim Burton, and of course, with sweet Calvin. Sweet he is, and innocent. Whatever the reason or not, that has these seizures. We all know some of the reasons, and I am so hoping that he and others who are being weaned from them with the soothing cannabis oils will get there, so that some relief happens.

    1. dear catherine,

      thank you for your kind reply. i understand that most people who say these kinds of things intend them to be well-meaning, but i have often thought they are said rote, without any deep forethought, which adds to my sense that they are being said for that person's own benefit or to try and make sense out of something that makes no sense. that kind of response will almost always feel selfish, limited and insensitive to me, try as i may to see benevolence. as my husband reminds me, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

      as for other people who might remind me—sometimes softly lecturing me—that those comments are made with good intentions and that they shouldn't vex me, i think to myself of a line in a song that says, "save me from the people who would save me from myself," (the lyrics go on to say, "they've got muscles for brains."

      we should all think more deeply before we open our mouths. i fail at this, too, but hopefully i am getting better.

      lastly, it shouldn't be confusing to keep track of what not to say if one can reason and perhaps step into another person's realm, but i find so many people don't want to do that. but we can all learn new tricks if we are paying attention and if we truly care. and if one is confused about what to say, the easiest, perhaps best thing, to do is simply to listen.


  3. In my experience, some of the comments I find least helpful (or most assaultive) come from people who regard themselves as professionals at helping, in some manner, or who think of themselves as
    highly advanced/new agey in their outlook. These folks are so convinced, so well-defended, it's hard
    to counter the oppressive effect. It's like some weird emotional tax one has to pay. And yet I might have been one of them, had circumstances been different. That's possible. And sobering.

  4. Dead on.
    Two thoughts: people like to believe that everything happens for a reason because they then feel protected from something similar happening to themselves. Randomness terrifies. Not an excuse, an explanation.
    Second, the idea that some higher power saved you on purpose during that hurricane implies that some higher power wished your neighbours dead. This is terrible.
    I knew a Jew who survived the Warsaw ghetto and after its liquidation, years of hiding. He simply said, "Given that I am here, I am duty bound to make for myself the best life I can." He made a fortune and gave most of it away to charitable causes. He never spoke of why, he never spoke of God. He simply decided to make his life mean something --since he had one. That should be enough to strive for for all of us…no easy feat.