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Giving Permission to the Can’t

When two people send you the same post within minutes of each other, you read it.  And think.  Thank you, Karen and Life After Divorce… Happy Chaos.  Then Lori added it to this week’s second-helpings in the Roundup.  I’ll read it, I’ll read it!

The post was Tim Lawrence’s, “Everything Doesn’t Happen for a Reason.”  In it, he explodes the platitudes that often are said after a life-changing event, when the person should be encouraged to grieve but instead is encouraged to look at the silver lining in the dark clouds.

It’s a good post, though only presents the point of view of the person experiencing the loss — and there are a lot of sides to a single story — but it starts a conversation, starting with the idea to tossing out the idea of “what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger” and instead taking up the more accurate notion that some pain is not meant to be “gotten over” but instead carried.  He writes,

I hate to break it to you, but although devastation can lead to growth, it often doesn’t. The reality is that it often destroys lives. And the real calamity is that this happens precisely because we’ve replaced grieving with advice. With platitudes. With our absence.

I like this because it gives permission to the “can’t,” as in, I can’t get over this.  I can’t move on from this.  I can’t not feel this.  I think, in some ways, it’s more important to give that support or permission to those who can’t because for that particular person, that load is just too heavy.  It may not be too heavy for another person, in the same way that what I can physically carry is very different from the loads the twins can physically carry with their twig arms.

So I think this type of post is important because it’s an acknowledgment that some loads may simply be too heavy, and if we wish to help, it’s not telling the person they can do it or try harder or the load isn’t that heavy.  It’s to help carry the load if we can help carry the load, and when we can’t because it’s a one-person job, to support the person emotionally, mostly by listening and not retreating when they comment on the ache in their arms.

And, at the same time, the post demeans an ideology that is very important to some people.  That life isn’t random, that there is a point to everything.  It presents the idea that there is only one way to help, a correct way to help, and all other ways of communicating hinder.

I guess I would prefer a post that acknowledges that there are a multitude of ways through an experience, and the method for helping should match the person in need rather than be the method preferred by the help giver.  Moreover, I want a post with an acknowledgment that sometimes the person experiencing a loss has no clue how others can help, has no clue how they wish to be addressed.  If they knew words that would help, they would say those words to themselves.  Maybe the fact that they can’t find these words means that there are no good words, or finding magical words that would assuage the feelings are akin to finding a needle in a haystack.

And I guess I was also bothered by the idea of cutting someone out of your life just because they struggle to support you.  You don’t know their internal thoughts, the words they rejected before they came out with the ones that offended you.  I suspect that I would have zero friends if people truly cut people out of their lives because they didn’t deliver the right words. I am positive I have offended people unintentionally, and I am positive that everyone in my life has said something supremely unhelpful at one moment or another.  There’s a quote I am completely blanking on in the moment about being forgiving because everyone has a story and we often don’t know what the other person has gone through.

So that is my take on the post.  Your thoughts?

Side note: #MicroblogMonday is tomorrow.  Get writing!


1 Jen { 11.01.15 at 7:50 am }

I saw a post the other day – “50 things to say to cheer someone up” – and was saddened but not surprised that every single one was basically “It’ll be OK. Change your perspective. Look on the bright side. CHEER UP!”

Sometimes things are not OK and there isn’t a bright side. I am learning to acknowledge that, both with myself and people I love who are hurting. One day things may be better. But we get to the better day in our own time by our own path, not because we are hurried there.

2 illustr8d { 11.01.15 at 9:32 am }

Your post is very important to me. Thank you for this.

3 Angie { 11.01.15 at 10:37 am }

In acute grief, even if I agree with the notion that everything happens for a reason, it isn’t exactly helpful to hear. My issue with it isn’t that one agree or not agree with the premise, but how compassionate or empathic is it? I couldn’t believe how easily that flowed from people’s mouths when my daughter died, rather than ask me what I believe about my daughter’s death. I said to some people, “What is the reason my daughter died and yours lived then? Because I’d be a bad mother? Or I was meant to be childless? Or why? What is that reason?” The truth is my daughter is dead almost seven years now, and her life and death has given my life profound meaning and exceptional compassion. I do think there is a larger reason for her death, that I’m part of an important matrix of meaning from a Higher Power/God. I just don’t think it is ever useful to be reminded of this from other people. Thanks for sharing this and apologies if this rant was too…ranty.

4 Lori Lavender Luz { 11.01.15 at 2:37 pm }

I liked this: “Some things cannot be fixed. They can only be carried” — and I really like your paragraph on carrying.

And I agree that sometimes just showing up is a gesture of support, even if the words used are awkward or even unhelpful. I think intention does matter when comforting/being comforted.

5 A. { 11.01.15 at 3:42 pm }

I loved the post. I mainly think it’s seriously arrogant to whack someone over the head with things like “It just wasn’t meant to be” or “Cheer up!” or “It could be worse” or “At least [insert silver lining speech” when they are grieving and you are not. I also think that the United States was born of a culture with religion at its center, so we have a tendency to take for granted that all people believe everything is secondary to the Creator’s premeditated design, and that’s really presumptuous and maddening when you’re an atheist or an agnostic trying to process something awful. I mean, if people believe that and it helps them cope, then I support it, but I agree with you that the method/philosophy for processing a loss/trauma should come from the sufferer, not the consoler. To have someone else’s platitudes shoved down your throat is only more isolating. Mostly, when I’m down, I just want someone to hold my hand or make me laugh – to abide with me – not tell me how I should think about it or at what pace I should rebound.

6 KeAnne { 11.01.15 at 5:17 pm }

I loved the post. Maybe because as an atheist, I’m so tired of people trying to make some sort of sense out of tragedy and responding often through a Christian lens. Maybe that brings them comfort, but it brings me pain. I think the post is important because you don’t often see people railing against the predominant narrative of requiring happiness and making sense out of horrible events, especially when that sense-making comes at your psychic expense since apparently it was your fault or a growth experience for you. I don’t think it is the author’s responsibility to give space to all sides.

I was drafting a post of my own but think enough has been said. I do want to share this link from a friend of mine about isolation during grief that I thought matched well with the other post: http://projectpomegranate.org/2015/plans-interrupted/

7 Karen (River Run Dry) { 11.02.15 at 7:39 am }

Ha, Lori and I pulled out the same thing from the post! I just posted today the idea I took most from the article.

“Some things cannot be fixed. They can only be carried.”

I also didn’t love the idea of cutting someone out of your life because they said something to the effect of “everything happens for a reason.” Now, i’ll admit it: I personally do not subscribe to that theory, and it makes me angry anytime someone mentions it. Oh, the 3 year old girl killed by her parents and dumped on Deer Island is for some higher good? No thank you.

BUT. I realize that a lot of people often say things like that because they don’t know what to say, and they’re trying to fix it for you. How many times did I hear the “just relax, it’ll happen!” when we were trying and I was telling someone about the ache in my arms? Grief is really uncomfortable, and it’s hard for people not to want to fix it. Hell, my own post today is about being patient with my own grief, instead of trying to think my way around it.

So for me, the biggest thing that article gave to me was the idea that grief is a part of the human experience, and it has its own timeline, and you sometimes can’t fix it. So being with a person (even yourself!) in grief, helping them carry that burden… that’s grace, right there.

8 Cynthia Samuels { 11.02.15 at 7:28 pm }

Honestly I think the most important thing is to be present. If someone is unable to accept what you offer, they will still remember as time passes that you were there. I do agree that “for a reason” concepts are beyond me and I often listen in wonder as rabbis and others consider EVERY EVENT G-D’s will for us to accept.

In the long run, all we can offer is love — and so we should.

9 Jess { 11.02.15 at 7:42 pm }

I loved, loved, loved the idea of the most helpful thing being to just be there. I have felt that myself, that the people who were most helpful in my darkest moments were people who knew to just be there and hold my hand and pass me tissues (or tequila) while I sobbed. I hate, hate, hate “everything happens for a reason.” I do understand that different people have different ideologies, and in mine there’s no one orchestrating horrific events for some people to wade through, so I can’t fathom any “reason” for horrible things to happen. I also hate, “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle,” for the same reasons. I don’t think necessarily that he meant to cut out everyone who doesn’t comfort you well, but that you have permission to let go of people who continually cannot comfort you in a helpful way and are in fact harmful in the way that they deal with your apparent grief and loss. I am terrible at that and like to just let things atrophy when I feel hurt by someone’s continual failure to be a decent human or to listen to what is truly helpful, but really it takes CONTINUAL failure to make me think I need out of a relationship because of poor grief handling. This post was incredibly thought provoking and applies to so many situations, but the thought of carrying your grief and having someone be there with you, not for you really stuck with me. Thank you for reposting.

10 Justine { 11.02.15 at 11:26 pm }

I saw this too, and almost sent it to you. Good thing I didn’t.

I think that’s one thing I’ve learned (am still learning) in this community: how to be there WITH someone, instead of FOR someone. It’s a powerful thing. And it requires a different kind of attentiveness, for which I am deeply grateful.

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