I once told a woman who had lost her baby when she was five months pregnant, “Everything happens for a reason.”
As the heartless words came out of my mouth, I immediately wanted to inhale them back in, feeling foolish at my callousness.
But we do that, don’t we? We say careless, robotic things in time of discomfort. We want some magic salve to put on the wounds of others that will offer comfort, so we won’t have to actually be vulnerable enough to offer real help or a listening ear because that truly is the more difficult option to offer.
She was a woman whom I had never met before, and she was giving me a pedicure—a gift from my mother to me after my daughter was born. This stranger and I discussed my very healthy newborn and how excited I was, and then she dropped the weight on me that she had lost her baby girl because she was born way too early.
After I told her that everything happens for a reason, she looked me straight into my eyes and said, “It’s hard to see a reason for something so terrible like that.”
And, yes, of course it is. Who was I—a woman with a healthy newborn baby girl at home—to tell this woman who had suffered devastation that she was going through it for a reason?
It was condescending and entitled, and the cold, blank look on her face still gnaws at me 12 years later. What made it even more cringe-worthy was that she was kneeling on the floor scraping dead skin off my feet while I talked down to her literally and metaphorically.
Who knows—Maybe things happen for a reason, but let’s be honest and say it’s overwhelming how horrifying life can get, right? When we say, “Everything happens for a reason” when someone is in pain we are basically saying, “I will not acknowledge your pain and sadness.”
I’ve been reminded of that this week. An acquaintance of mine had a teenaged son who died a couple of years ago. I sat down with her this week when our sons were playing together, and she told me the story.
I was numb as she told me of losing her son, a child with so much promise for a bright future, leaving this earth way too early.
I didn’t try to coax her with saccharine Hallmark words like, “Well, at least he’s here in spirit.” No mama wants her son here in spirit. She wants him HERE, totally here, so I learned from my past and did not dole out shallow phrases.
I didn’t gloss over the painful reality she was sharing with me, a near stranger. I put my hand on her leg and said, “That absolutely sucks. You must think of him every second of every day, and I can’t wrap my brain around that sadness. I am so sorry. I hate this for you.”
We sipped our beers in silence, staring at the floor and sniffling for a bit, then had a real, guttural conversation about life and how it knocks the wind out of you, and it takes everything in you to not curl up in a corner and give up.
And that’s the best thing you can do when someone is suffering and feeling a pain you cannot even fathom. Tell them it sucks, and you hate it for them. Don’t offer a canned answer you’ve heard a million times that you don’t believe just because it’s more comfortable for you.
Let them know you see them, and even if you don’t have the same experiences, sit with them in that darkness to let them know you want to carry some of the pain rather than throwing empty phrases their way to get you off the hook.
None of us knows what tomorrow holds. No one is exempt from pain or obstacles.
You will face more pain.
I will face more pain.
It is absolutely guaranteed.
When we’re there in the storm, my guess is we’ll want people not to throw half-hearted phrases at us because they’re too uncomfortable to say or do anything of real value. We will want them to reach into the storm with an outstretched arm.
We aren’t armed with explanations that magically bring peace to tragedy. We walk through a lot of junk, and we will continue to do so, and we will continue to rely on each other to get us through the junk.
Feeling we can rely on each other is the one thing that makes life a touch less horrifying.
I will continue to strive to look the person in the eye whose heart is breaking and see her, sit with her and tell her that this sucks and I hate it for her. Will you as well?
Rebecca Rine writes at RebeccaRine.com, where she focuses on being real about life’s imperfections, often with humor. She is an opinion contributor to Dayton Daily News and public radio and can be found at Facebook, Instagram and YouTube. Her book of essays, “What Waits Ahead is Way Better and Way Worse Than You Imagined” is due out this summer.
Image courtesy of Artem Maltsev.