I once told a woman who had lost her baby when she was 5 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 stupid, 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.
She was a Vietnamese 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 bomb 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 look on her face still gnaws at me 11 years later.
Maybe things happen for a reason, but let’s be honest and say it’s overwhelming how horrifying life can get, right?
I’ve been reminded of that a lot this week. My son’s best friend had a teenaged brother who died a couple of years ago. I sat down with his mom 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 let’s stop saying those biting words.
No, I didn’t gloss over the reality. I put my hand on her leg and said, “That absolutely sucks. You must think of him every second of every day.”
We 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.
Another friend lost her husband this week, leaving her with 3 young boys to care for. I know she will be hearing words of encouragement and comfort, but I know she will be overwhelmed, angry and wanting to curl up in a corner in fear.
Rather than passively offering, "Let me know how I can help," her close friends set up a fundraiser for her and a "meal train" with a sign up sheet for people to bring meals. To me, that is exactly what active helping looks like.
It's not simply offering help if you might need it--you roll up your sleeves and do it because you know that person can't even think straight right now let alone cook a meal for her children.
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 to not 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 humans aren’t armed with explanations that always bring peace. 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.
That’s the one thing that makes it a touch less horrifying.