This summer, after my mother died, I heard two things over and over:
“Your wedding was beautiful,” and “I’m so sorry about your Mother.”
“Your wedding is dead. Your Mother was beautiful.”
My wife and I received lots of cards in those weeks. I’d open just to peek at the color: ivory, white and charcoal meant wedding (open it), lavender, peach and pink meant sympathy (shelve it). The two messages were well-meaning, obligatory, kind. A sympathy card could leave me on the kitchen floor in heaves of sadness.
The condolence that quickly followed went something like this:
Everything happens for a reason. She held out for the wedding and then it was time for her to go. She wasn’t meant to be with us anymore.
These were fellow mourners and acquaintances who meant well — who love me and want to see my family heal. And yet, that catch-all phrase "everything happens for a reason" echoed over and over. The phrase that put responsibility on capital-D destiny with the vanishing hope it would bring relief. Why is that such a painful phrase in the throes of grief?
Maybe because I had too much information. I was there at the doctors' appointments, the tests, the treatments. I took notes, distilled and regurgitated the information so often that it lost its gravity. I had hope from oncologists and recovered patients. I had responsibility and somewhere somehow that transformed into culpability.If I had booked Mom a visiting nurse 1 week earlier; if I'd recognized her exhaustion as more than just a side effect of radiation; if I'd pushed the oncologist to give us more statistics...she'd be alive.
She'd get to see the wedding pictures, celebrate my sister's 26th birthday, eat turkey for Thanksgiving. "Everything happens for a reason" feels cruel. I know that I did everything I could. I know my sister did everything she could. I know that our family and doctors and partners and friends did all they could — a monumental collective effort.
That little phrase “everything happens for a reason” discounted the validity of my confusion and absurd surprise at Mom’s death. It said to me: don’t feelanything. Instead, think about the future and think about how this will ultimately make sense. “Everything happens for a reason” was cheap. “Everything happens for a reason” was blameless. Yet, “Everything happens for a reason” was an incredibly relieving thing for someone else to hear.
That is the maddening thing about words of comfort: nothing lands the same way for every bereft person. Nor is it the same day to day; words that comforted someone yesterday might not be helpful to that same person today. Speaking to those who are grieving is incredibly challenging — kudos to those who brave the canyon dividing raw nerves from the rest of the world. Greif can be a lonesome place, if I let it.
What if I suspend my distaste for that phrase for a moment? There are the changes we invite – setting goals for our professional life or self-improvement – and there are the changes that break our knees and bring us to the floor. The change I undergo because I have no alternative; living without Dad and then Mom. So, what next? I can talk to other people who are going through loss. I can share my own slowly healing heart as evidence that there might be a way through this quaking pain.
A smart and eloquent friend recently put it this way:
What if the “reason” I hear so much about is simply this: to allow some ancient or divine wisdom into our broken selves? Her perspective softened something for me. What if the grief cracks me open so that I can be available to someone else? Take my own experience and hope and give away the map it makes so that I can be helpful to someone else.
I still don’t think everything happens for a reason. But I do believe my experience gives me a bridge to relate to other people. Perhaps someone who needs proof that things get ever-so-slowly better.
Let’s stumble through this together and err on the side of listening to one another.