I recently read an article entitled “Everything Doesn’t Happen for a Reason”. It was about the damage that can be done when people put forward sentiments like “everything happens for a reason” to those in the midst of pain and grief, how these words can be an insult and affront to people in the midst of their suffering. The author clearly has intense personal experience of this, and in his work has witnessed many times how words like these can deny and subvert the grief process and diminish the suffering of those enduring it. He speaks to the incredible weight of suffering that is possible, and how it is clear that not everything happens for a reason, not every tragedy results in personal growth and how some things cannot be healed, only carried.
The article clearly had a powerful effect on people, for reasons I can understand. Its passionate and damning tone seemed to touch a deep wounding that a lot of people had experienced and suffered from, and inspired equally impassioned comments on social media. But much of the article disturbed me. Throughout it I experienced a sense of violence towards people who are unskilled in supporting others in their grieving. There were also aspects that seemed to me to be unhelpful and even subtly dangerous for those experiencing grief and trauma.
Protecting the processing of grief and trauma
I like that the author stands up for the process of grieving. The grief process is important and needs to be valued and safeguarded. Particularly in a culture which tends to devalue it, where grief is far too easily and quickly pathologised and even medicated.
I personally see particular flavours of this devaluing in communities which identify as being “conscious” or “spiritual”. I think there is a lot of damage done when people take “spiritual” concepts like “everything happens for a reason”, or “you are responsible for (or choose) everything that happens to you” and apply them to others without really understanding or empathising with their experience. For those who are comfortable, educated, supported, relatively trauma-free and have the internal resources to process what life has pushed their way, it can be hard to understand how deep and overwhelming suffering and grief can be. “Everything happens for a reason” is relatively easy to apply to one’s own experience from positions of relative privilege and insulation from intense trauma. It is much harder as you get closer to the forefront of horror that is possible in this world. It can be a mind-blowingly awful place, and incredibly fucked up things happen all the time. They happen to people who don’t have the internal or external resources to process them, people whose history and environment has shaped them to lack the skills to cope. People can then find themselves in situations where their trauma is repeated over and over, and more trauma piled on top, and it only accumulates over the rest of their life and they carry it all to the grave. They also pass it on to the next generations. Telling these people in a sanctimonious and disconnected way that “everything happens for a reason” can be tantamount to abuse.
Another aspect of this is spiritual bypassing, where instead of actually processing and integrating trauma and grief, people avoid it with the help of spiritual ideals. It is then natural to project this situation outwards on to others, assuming it is helpful for them to do the same and even needing this from them to avoid triggering the unprocessed material. This can certainly interrupt or divert a true process of healing and integration in another person, and when delivered from an attitude of superiority to someone in a vulnerable place it can be disempowering and confusing in an already difficult time.
A broader compassion around grief
I say yes to the author bringing all of this to the light and trying to educate people about how to support others, and how to protect one’s own healthy processes around grief and trauma. But there are other dimensions to this, aspects that I feel this article almost completely misses. There is a lot I disagree with, and I find the tone harsh and lacking nuance and compassion. The author pretty much suggests that grieving people cut from their lives anyone who utters statements such as “everything happens for a reason”. He qualifies by saying: “I’m not saying you should. That is up to you, and only up to you. It isn’t an easy decision to make and should be made carefully. But I want you to understand that you can”. However, I find the emotional tone of the article outpunches this footnote. The author repeatedly and evocatively says “you can let them go” as he goes through a list of statements or behaviours that he sees as unhelpful to those in pain. He also powerfully concludes the article with “Everyone else can go”, referring to everyone who doesn’t know how to simply be present with a grieving person.
I find this a dangerous suggestion to make to people who are going through intense life trials and could probably use support. Support comes in many forms, and to cut people out because they don’t know how to offer empathy in this way might be to cut out people who are willing to bring over a meal, take care of the kids, pay for a retreat and any number of other important kindnesses. Sometimes the very people who suck at simple emotional support are the best and most forthcoming at practical assistance. It can also be vital to simply have friends and family around, even if they aren’t perfect all the time.
This attitude also shows pretty much zero compassion for the people who make these kind of statements out of ignorance. The fact is that people are fallible, people fumble their way through intensity, not everyone knows how to deal with their own pain let alone the pain of another. People’s own unprocessed trauma can create this very dynamic. Advice about listening and just being there is good advice – but using it to bludgeon people who don’t have these skills and threatening them with ostracism seems to me to be another form of the violence the author is seeking to combat.
Protecting the place the words point to
But there is something even more fundamental about this article that I want to address. It goes beyond how these sentiments are delivered and how the author suggests we deal with the people who speak them. I feel compelled to make a stand for concepts like “everything happens for a reason”, and the possibility of the deep value they can have for people going through grief, pain or loss…
Platitudes are often wisdom watered down and delivered by someone who doesn’t really understand them to any real depth. But “everything happens for a reason” is not only a bullshit phrase applied by people who don’t know grief, or a band-aid over a gushing artery that has no real effect, or a pixies and ice-cream fantasy clung on to with closed eyes and blocked ears. I believe it can point towards states of consciousness, qualities of experiencing, or contexts for living which can have deep meaning and genuine positive effect for people who are suffering. I believe that it can describe the kind of places that many spiritual traditions also point towards.
I don’t pretend to really get it to the core. I don’t live a life where I consistently experience the meaning in all of my suffering. I still try to avoid it and rue it when it comes. But I have had peak experiences in which everything in my life, including my pain, grief and suffering are part of a deep sense of meaning and perfection in all that is. That it all makes sense. These experiences have informed me and my life in a very positive way. I find that in my day to day living I increasingly see trial and difficulty through the lens of personal growth and transformation and that this contributes significantly to my happiness. Sometimes it seems more like “I can find meaning and purpose in everything that happens”, sometimes more like “everything happens for a reason”, but it all points in the same general direction, a direction I find to be positive and experientially life-affirming.
I am aware of the mildness of my struggles relative to the pain that exists in the world. But in my personal life and in my encounters with clients I have known people with very significant life traumas that would rate pretty high on the scale of such things. And for some of these people “everything happens for a reason” has in some way been an integral part of their healing. This can come as a description of places they have arrived at in the culmination of their process; when people look back, their traumatic experiences have deep meaning in the current context of their lives and somehow seem essential to it. They are either grateful that these things happened in some way, or are able to see the perfection in them and the gifts that have been offered to them and others through those experiences. I’m not talking here about mental trickery or empty philosophy. I’m talking about the lived, breathed and viscerally felt experience of meaning, meaning that touches the heart and suffuses life with a sense of poignancy.
The value of “everything happens for a reason” can also come as something that helps people in the midst of their pain and suffering, offering them the perspective and the faith which support them to heal. To be clear, I’m not talking about a replacement for grieving, but about something that augments it, runs alongside of it and offers a container in which the grieving process can happen. It can support people to trust the healing process and assure them that the suffering is worth it. Creating or uncovering meaning and narrative around the things that occur to us in our lives can be a powerful force in helping us to live well, and in giving us the courage and strength to surrender to what is painful and necessary. In my own journey with depression, the knowing that I would eventually derive growth and meaning from the experience was a tiny, often dim but consistent light that did not remove suffering, but somehow made it more bearable.
I don’t like the author’s quoted phrase that “some things can’t be fixed they can only be carried”. Yes, it often turns out to be experientially true. Pretty much all of us carry things to the grave. Yes, it is aimed at supporting people to be kind to themselves and honour the depth and duration of their grieving process and I can see the value in this. Yes, “fixed” is an ugly and misguided way of describing how true healing occurs. But what I don’t like about this phrase is that it seems to also say that transformative healing isn’t possible, that our wounds will exist as wounds forever. I feel concern that in an effort to support people by validating their pain, the creative possibility of healing and transformation may be lost. I don’t believe that things can’t be healed. I see healing happen. Often layer by layer, with slow and patient effort, guidance, and the unpredictable visitation of grace. I hold and I stand for this fact and possibility.
There may come a time when in the midst of my own pain and grief I lose the faith in this. When I am not able to see that there could be any meaning or sense in what I am suffering. I hope that at this time I have people around me who are able to hold me and my pain in silent grace and allow it to be. I also hope that in this dark time there is someone who can help me reconnect with the living sense that everything in my life is meaningful, even the thing that has brought me such pain. I hope there is someone who doesn’t negate my suffering, but helps me to make it a holy wound that brings me deeper into myself and my love and reverence for life. I will be grateful for this person, and whatever words they use to help me remember.