If I had a nickel for every time someone told me (or I told someone) everything happens for a reason… I’d be able to throw a giant bag of nickels through the hole I just punched in the wall.
On the chance that you’re new here, I have a son who lives in the great beyond. Nobody asked, but I’ll tell you anyway that my vision of heaven is a place filled with soft, warm light, and no more pain, and Jesus snuggles and reads books to my little boy until I can get there myself. Then we’ll sip coffee that is always the perfect hot, piled on top of each other in the coziest overstuffed chair, and we’ll never wonder about anything achy ever again because inside that beautiful eternity we will have come to learn everything we need to know – and nothing we don’t. There’s nothing there but love.
I think about heaven just enough to keep my feet moving down here on planet earth.
Because down here, grief is still a b****. And just when you think you’ve trained the beast, it gets off leash and starts eating out of the trash, making a tremendously inconvenient mess that you have to clean up again. And you’re mad at the animal, but not really. Because its presence and companionship are part of the person you love and lost, and part of who you are too, mess and all.
In my book I wrote two lists. Well, I actually wrote a lot of lists. But the two I’m talking about here are the lists of “things to say and do to help a person in grief” and “Things Not to Ever Say or Do to a Person in Grief.”
Both lists are equally important. Humans are quirky creatures – we inherently want to help the people we love who are struggling, often so desperately that we end up hurting them instead in the subconscious process of trying to alleviate our own pain and discomfort.
“But I’d never want to hurt someone who’s already hurting!” you say.
But I’ve been guilty of my fair share of Saying Stupid Things. Mostly because I felt like I needed to be profound or inspirational. Or because silence made me uncomfortable. Or because it hurt me too much to sit with someone’s pain.
Notice the common factor: me.
Me, me, me. It’s rare that many of our well-intended words have anything to do with the other person. We’re usually too wrapped up in our own itchy discomfort to pause long enough to ask: what does my hurting friend really need?
If you can’t say something nice…
I wish I had known earlier in my life that compassionate, silent presence is often the most comforting gift of all to someone in pain.
Whatever your person is going through, it's swinging through their life like a wrecking ball. And there is likely nothing you could offer that will fix it, solve it, soothe it, or make it go away. As a general rule, if you wouldn’t write it in a sympathy card, or include it in a public eulogy, don’t say it with your out loud voice to someone who’s hurting.
Why we want to say “everything happens for a reason”
“Everything happens for a reason” seems to be the most popular go-to phrase we set on the table accompanied by flowers or a casserole.
If you really want to dig into why this is problematic (not only in grief but for spirituality in general), and something better to say instead, haste ye to getjoy.shop and get yourself a copy of Joy Comes in the Mourning. It’s heavy but short; you can read it in an afternoon.
In the meantime, here’s the cliff notes version. Your person (or you, for that matter) may actually believe this everything-happens-for-a-reason concept, whether it's rooted in faith or not. But you can't force-feed it to them when they're suffering.
We say everything happens for a reason to quell our own feelings of fear, discomfort, and uncertainty. Yet truthfully, it doesn’t really help us that much either. So we may as well just stop saying it.
Incidentally, we’ve got a lot of fear, pain, uncertainty, and grief swirling around in the world right now disguised as job loss, financial strain, health worries, homeschooling, empty toilet paper shelves, election tension, social media scrolling, and Netflix binge-watching. I bet if you asked ten of your friends to be honest about their current general anxiety level, they’d all tell you it’s heightened in 2020 simply because of how uncertain the future of anything feels.
Life is uncertain, and scary and beautiful and completely unpredictable. This uncertainty makes our control-freak human brains twitch. We get uncomfortable and push the panic button and that’s when we start saying good-hearted but super-dumb things.
But what if it's true that everything happens for a reason?
Here’s the twist: I am one of those annoying people who still DOES believe everything really does happen for a reason. I believe true good and true evil are alive in the world. I believe I was put on this planet at this moment in time for a distinct purpose, that you were too, and that God and the universe are working all things together for good for each of us.
It took me death, a near-divorce, and 11 years of therapy and solid grief work to bring me to the point where I have an evolving peace treaty with “everything happening for a reason.” This means that some days I cling this belief for comfort, and some days I go back to thinking it’s utter and total bulls***. In order to come to a point of peace, I had to wrestle with everything from personal guilt to eternal spiritual questions, some of which were:
- Did God cause this tragedy to happen?
- If the devil caused it, why did God let it happen?
- Does God even care?
- Was any of it my fault?
- Am I being punished?
- What am I supposed to be learning?
- What am I supposed to do with all this?
- Am I going to be broken forever?
- Does any of this even matter?
And more. The passing of time doesn’t really make these questions (or their answers) any easier. It just brings me new upgraded models of the original hamster wheel my mind incessantly spins around on inside. (If you’re currently wrestling with these questions, let me encourage you that these questions are important to wrestle with. Seek out a professional to help you stop the manic cycle and make some sense out of how you’re thinking and feeling. Your physical/mental wellness and your spiritual health will thank you for it.)
A better encouragement than "everything happens for a reason"
Maybe the better way I came to frame “everything happens for a reason” is: there is meaning and purpose in all things. I want to believe – I do believe - my life matters, my son’s life matters, and your life matters too. We aren’t arbitrary cosmic space dust. We’re divinely inspired creatures here to do the work that only we can do. Not one human is an accident. We’re all here on purpose.
But frustratingly, you can’t see purpose from right where you are. You can only see it when you zoom waaaayyyyyyyy out. In the immediacy of pain and suffering, there is no purpose to be found. And if you try to assign purpose to tragedy before you’ve found time and distance from it, you’ll most likely place blame on your own failure, or a vengeful god, or other self-destructive patterns of thought.
In the fog of grief, I scrambled to immediately assign purpose to my son’s death. That frenzied chase shaped the way I began to think, work, love, practice faith, and engage in relationships from that point forward. Grasping for purpose and meaning of the loss of a child sent me (still sends me, when I’m not operating out of wellness) on a desperate goose-chase to find and assign significance and depth to every one of my experiences.
An actual reason
We were given a unique, clear, and tangible reason for our son’s death: the adoption of our daughter. I held onto that miracle, that definitive purpose, until its superpower ran out after about a year.
Not surprisingly, when the feel-good water ran dry, all that remained in the bottom of my dusty riverbed was anger and pain that had quietly festered long enough to rot into infection. I hurt even more then than I had in the beginning. And I was even madder because I thought I had avoided all that pain altogether. Grace (our daughter) or not, there was absolutely no reason a baby should die. Ever.
This topic is reserved for my first perfect hot coffee with God.
My point here is this: no amount of “purpose-driven life” can cancel the fact that tragedy happens and it hurts like a mother. Tragedy can and tragedy does eventually transform into something meaningful, but it takes time, and intentional heart work to get better through the pain instead of bitter. You can’t just wave the magic wand of “purpose” over pain and suffering and escape the process. I know. I tried. You just make more messy work for yourself in the long run.
Which is why telling someone “everything happens for a reason” in the thick of their suffering is truly unhelpful. Because:
- They don’t have the perspective yet to see or understand anything good that could possibly come out of their situation, and,,,
- It’s rushing them through the healing process.
I clung to the phrase myself after my son died, and when our marriage was falling apart, repeating it over and over every day like if I said it enough, it’d come true. But I realize now in hindsight I was actually doing #2: rushing my own self through the process, trying to skip the pain. Grief is a master teacher. Unyielding. I’d never wish away what I learned and who I am now because of it. But again – you can’t tell someone that during their deepest grief, not even yourself.
Quick bonus advice
In addition to everything happens for a reason, DO NOT EVER tell someone “I understand” unless you have experienced the exact loss/pain they are experiencing. Even then… it’s not the best choice of words. It minimizes their experience and makes them feel small instead of seen, heard, and supported.
Here are some better, helpful, encouraging phrases to share instead (I've put them on a handy graphic down at the bottom):
- I love you.
- I’m so sorry.
- I’m here with you.
- I hear what you’re saying.
- Would you like some company?
- Can I bring you a (pizza/punching bag/box of plates)?
If you don’t know what to say, don’t say anything at all. Silence really is okay. But if you truly can’t stand the silence, just let them know you love them and you care. If you’re live, in person, and you panic, just breathe and pray: God, give me the right words or none at all to be a blessing to my friend in this moment.
Bad things happen to good people. It’s heartbreaking and frustrating, especially when those bad things feel senseless.
You may never know the reason for the tragedy that befell you. There might not even be a reason. Maybe not everything happens for a reason… but you happened for a reason. And you’re still here: a breathing, living soul. Which means there’s still purpose for you.
Feathers on a breeze
One of my favorite lines from my favorite movies:
I don’t know if we each have a destiny, or if we’re all just floating around accidental-like on a breeze. But I think maybe it’s both. Maybe both are happening at the same time.” -- Forrest Gump
I think Forrest had it right. We’ll never understand the big picture until we’re looking at it from the other side – in that cozy overstuffed chair, filled with love and light. Until then, there are questions we’ll never have answers to, and things we’ll never be able to fully explain or embrace.
So rather than assigning “reason” to the events that befall us, what if we instead chose to trust and be faithful to the process? I’m still here. So are you. Every breath is a new opportunity to leave a little dent in eternity for good.
The world is swirling with grief right now, disguised as worry, job loss, financial strain, health concerns, distance learning, political tension, marriage strain, and about 100 other stressful things.
For your people who are hurting, no matter the reason: call them today just to say hi. Don’t try to fix them. You can’t. Just love them and let them know you’re not going to leave their side. Do it on purpose.
No matter the cause of a person's pain, grief is grief, and loss is loss. One person's pain isn't more (or less) painful or significant than another's. If you know someone struggling with pain, grief, or loss, or someone who simply needs the comfort of a loving community, please invite them here. If you choose to gift them a copy of my book, I'm happy to inscribe it with a personal word of encouragement.