Everything Doesn’t Happen For A Reason

Thank you Tim Lawrence… your Oct. 20 blog meant so much to me, I had to share it with my readers. 

I emerge from this conversation dumbfounded. I’ve seen this a million times before, but it still gets me every time.

I’m listening to a man tell a story. A woman he knows was in a devastating car accident; her life shattered in an instant. She now lives in a state of near-permanent pain; a paraplegic; many of her hopes stolen.

He tells of how she had been a mess before the accident, but that the tragedy had engendered positive changes in her life. That she was, as a result of this devastation, living a wonderful life.

And then he utters the words. The words that are responsible for nothing less than emotional, spiritual and psychological violence:

Everything happens for a reason. That this was something that had to happen in order for her to grow.

That’s the kind of bullshit that destroys lives. And it is categorically untrue.

It is amazing to me that so many of these myths persist—and that is why I share actionable tools and strategies to work with your pain in my free newsletter. These myths are nothing more than platitudes cloaked as sophistication, and they preclude us from doing the one and only thing we must do when our lives are turned upside down: grieve.

You know exactly what I’m talking about. You’ve heard these countless times. You’ve probably even uttered them a few times yourself. And every single one of them needs to be annihilated.

Let me be crystal clear: if you’ve faced a tragedy and someone tells you in any way, shape or form that your tragedy was meant to be, that it happened for a reason, that it will make you a better person, or that taking responsibility for it will fix it, you have every right to remove them from your life.

Grief is brutally painful. Grief does not only occur when someone dies. When relationships fall apart, you grieve. When opportunities are shattered, you grieve. When dreams die, you grieve. When illnesses wreck you, you grieve.

So I’m going to repeat a few words I’ve uttered countless times; words so powerful and honest they tear at the hubris of every jackass who participates in the debasing of the grieving:

Some things in life cannot be fixed. They can only be carried. 

These words come from my dear friend Megan Devine, one of the only writers in the field of loss and trauma I endorse. These words are so poignant because they aim right at the pathetic platitudes our culture has come to embody on a increasingly hopeless level. Losing a child cannot be fixed. Being diagnosed with a debilitating illness cannot be fixed. Facing the betrayal of your closest confidante cannot be fixed.

They can only be carried.

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 now live an extraordinary life. I’ve been deeply blessed by the opportunities I’ve had and the radically unconventional life I’ve built for myself. Yet even with that said, I’m hardly being facetious when I say that loss has not in and of itself made me a better person. In fact, in many ways it’s hardened me.

While so much loss has made me acutely aware and empathetic of the pains of others, it has made me more insular and predisposed to hide. I have a more cynical view of human nature, and a greater impatience with those who are unfamiliar with what loss does to people.

Above all, I’ve been left with a pervasive survivor’s guilt that has haunted me all my life. This guilt is really the genesis of my hiding, self-sabotage and brokenness.

In short, my pain has never been eradicated, I’ve just learned to channel it into my work with others. I consider it a great privilege to work with others in pain, but to say that my losses somehow had to happen in order for my gifts to grow would be to trample on the memories of all those I lost too young; all those who suffered needlessly, and all those who faced the same trials I did early in life, but who did not make it.

I’m simply not going to do that. I’m not going to construct some delusional narrative fallacy for myself so that I can feel better about being alive. I’m not going to assume that God ordained me for life instead of all the others so that I could do what I do now. And I’m certainly not going to pretend that I’ve made it through simply because I was strong enough; that I became “successful” because I “took responsibility.”

There’s a lot of “take responsibility” platitudes in the personal development space, and they are largely nonsense. People tell others to take responsibility when they don’t want to understand.

Because understanding is harder than posturing. Telling someone to “take responsibility” for their loss is a form of benevolent masturbation. It’s the inverse of inspirational porn: it’s sanctimonious porn.

Personal responsibility implies that there’s something to take responsibility for. You don’t take responsibility for being raped or losing your child. You take responsibility for how you choose to live in the wake of the horrors that confront you, but you don’t choose whether you grieve. We’re not that smart or powerful. When hell visits us, we don’t get to escape grieving.

This is why all the platitudes and fixes and posturing are so dangerous: in unleashing them upon those we claim to love, we deny them the right to grieve.

In so doing, we deny them the right to be human. We steal a bit of their freedom precisely when they’re standing at the intersection of their greatest fragility and despair.

No one—and I mean no one—has that authority. Though we claim it all the time.

The irony is that the only thing that even can be “responsible” amidst loss is grieving.

So if anyone tells you some form of get over it, move on, or rise above, you can let them go.

If anyone avoids you amidst loss, or pretends like it didn’t happen, or disappears from your life, you can let them go.

If anyone tells you that all is not lost, that it happened for a reason, that you’ll become better as a result of your grief, you can let them go.

Let me reiterate: all of those platitudes are bullshit.

You are not responsible to those who try to shove them down your throat. You can let them go.

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.

I’ve grieved many times in my life. I’ve been overwhelmed with shame and self-hatred so strong it’s nearly killed me.

The ones who helped—the only ones who helped—were those who were there. And said nothing.

In that nothingness, they did everything.

I am here—I have lived—because they chose to love me. They loved me in their silence, in their willingness to suffer with me, alongside me, and through me. They loved me in their desire to be as uncomfortable, as destroyed, as I was, if only for a week, an hour, even just a few minutes.

Most people have no idea how utterly powerful this is.

Are there ways to find “healing” amidst devastation? Yes. Can one be “transformed” by the hell life thrusts upon them? Absolutely. But it does not happen if one is not permitted to grieve. Because grief itself is not an obstacle.

The obstacles come later. The choices as to how to live; how to carry what we have lost; how to weave a new mosaic for ourselves? Those come in the wake of grief. It cannot be any other way.

Grief is woven into the fabric of the human experience. If it is not permitted to occur, its absence pillages everything that remains: the fragile, vulnerable shell you might become in the face of catastrophe.

Yet our culture has treated grief as a problem to be solved, an illness to be healed, or both. In the process, we’ve done everything we can to avoid, ignore, or transform grief. As a result, when you’re faced with tragedy you usually find that you’re no longer surrounded by people, you’re surrounded by platitudes.

What to Offer Instead

When a person is devastated by grief, the last thing they need is advice. Their world has been shattered. This means that the act of inviting someone—anyone—into their world is an act of great risk. To try and fix or rationalize or wash away their pain only deepens their terror.

Instead, the most powerful thing you can do is acknowledge. Literally say the words:

I acknowledge your pain. I am here with you.

Note that I said with you, not for you. For implies that you’re going to do something. That is not for you to enact. But to stand with your loved one, to suffer with them, to listen to them, to do everything butsomething is incredibly powerful.

There is no greater act than acknowledgment. And acknowledgment requires no training, no special skills, no expertise. It only requires the willingness to be present with a wounded soul, and to stay present, as long as is necessary.

Be there. Only be there. Do not leave when you feel uncomfortable or when you feel like you’re not doing anything. In fact, it is when you feel uncomfortable and like you’re not doing anything that you must stay.

Because it is in those places—in the shadows of horror we rarely allow ourselves to enter—where the beginnings of healing are found. This healing is found when we have others who are willing to enter that space alongside us. Every grieving person on earth needs these people.

Thus I beg you, I plead with you, to be one of these people.

You are more needed than you will ever know.

And when you find yourself in need of those people, find them. I guarantee they are there.

Everyone else can go.

DEATH COUNTS ON SIRI TO GET TO THE OTHER SIDE

ANOTHER GUEST BLOG: There’s a bunch of great bloggers out there!!!

I received an email yesterday from a Henry Augustine via Linked In, inviting me to participate in his first “Prose Anthology Challenge” ,  which asked writers to write 500 words on Death and from there, the top submissions would be published in its first Kindle Anthology.

I’m not entirely sure how Henry got my name but I clicked on the link, just like I arbitrarily click on all links because I firmly believe that if God didn’t want us to receive spam and have our bank accounts hacked, he wouldn’t have created the Internet in the first place.

Anyway, I read some of the submissions and they were all pretty heavy.  Writing about heavy topics is not my thing so I thought I would submit 500 words on the lighter side of Death, something that focused on the more whimsical or positive aspects of ceasing to exist like not having to fill out a FASFA application ever again or being removed from the Lands End catalog database once and for all.

Long story short, it was short story long and I blew past the 500 word mark thus throwing myself out of the running in Mr. Augustine’s Kindle death anthology.  But Henry’s loss is also your loss because I am posting my short story entitled, “Death Comes to Hohokus, NJ” right here and if you leave, I’ll find out where you live and provide your address to  the  good people over at Land’s End.

One last thing.  After you read it and  even if you absolutely hated it, please press “like” and leave lots of positive, wildly exuberant comments about how great it was because I had to explain to my wife why I was writing this when I should have been working and she wasn’t buying it.

Here’s the story:

Death Comes to Hohokus, New Jersey

The doorbell rang and I heard my daughter Claire holler, “I’ll get it!” in that sweet, high pitched voice that made my dog Lester’s ears shoot straight up into the air as if he’d been poked with a fork.  Claire’s very responsible for a three-year old.  Loves to chip in, always asking my wife and me if she could make our bed while we were still in it.

I was in the den splayed out on the couch with a blanket pulled up to my chin.

There was more than eight inches of wet snow on the ground outside and still falling but inside a golf match was on and while I don’t play golf or like golf, I watch it religiously during the winter because winter in New Jersey is so miserably cold, grey and depressing, I take great comfort in knowing that somebody somewhere is enjoying 80 degrees of pure sunshine and lush greenery even if it’s not me.

I felt his presence before he entered the room, and when it’s your turn, trust me, you will too. Lester’s hackles were up but instead of growling he whimpered and disappeared behind one of the curtains.

Claire entered the den holding his hand.  “Dad, your friend Denny is here. Came to say hi.”

“It’s Death, sweetie, not Denny,” Death said.

The whole nine yards: skeleton, black hooded cloak that went all the way to the floor, scythe clutched in one bony hand, floated, didn’t walk.

Claire furrowed her brow for an instant, and I knew she was making sure the name revision stuck. Claire has a habit of furrowing her brow when she’s trying to remember something. I watched her silently mouth the word “death”.

“Ok, bye, Death, bye Dad!” she said, sprinting out of the room.

I suddenly realized I was standing now but with no recollection of how I got there. The blanket was still wrapped around my legs which were shaking so hard I started to vibrate across the room until the coffee table stopped me.

“What is this? Is this some sort of a joke?” I asked, knowing full well this wasn’t a joke.

“Depends on your sense of humor. I hear some people think Gilbert Gottfried is a genius. Let’s keep it simple. I’m Death, your time is up and you are coming with me. Also, contrary to what you heard, I don’t play cards. Or board games.”  He raised his hands to make air quotes. “The ‘engaging Death in games of chance and winning your soul back’ business? Sorry. Strictly Hollywood. Got it? Good. Let’s go.”

I fell back on the couch landing on the remote. The channel changed from golf to TCM. Citizen Kane was on. Death and I looked at the screen. Ironically enough, Orson Welles was on his deathbed. “Rosebud,” Orson Welles gasped.

Citizen Kane!” Death said. He sat down next to me, suddenly engrossed. “Rosebud was his sled. Have you seen it?”

“No. Always meant to,” I said.

“Sorry for ruining the ending but where you’re going, it’s really more of a favor than a spoiler alert,” Death said.

“I can’t believe this is happening. I don’t even know what I’m dying from. Am I dying from something?

“Heart attack.”

“That’s impossible! I got a clean bill of health from my cardiologist just last week. Do you have any idea how much I spend a year on fish oil? Are you sure you got the right guy?”

Death suddenly stood up, raising his scythe menacingly over his head and in an instant his eyes flashed from black to fiery red coals. Remember when you were a kid and you said or did that one thing that pushed your parents over the edge and you could actually see how someone who loved you unconditionally could also be capable of murdering you in cold blood? That’s how this felt when I crossed the line with Death. I pressed my back as deep as I could into the couch in a futile attempt to evade the heat emanating from his eye sockets as his stare bored into me.

“Do you dare mock me? I have the power to make you suffer great pain if that’s your preference.”

“No, that is definitely not my preference,” I said. “I’m sorry and I wasn’t mocking you.  Could you just do me one small favor and show me the work order or whatever it is you people, or if it’s just you, you use to keep track of everything? Just do that and I’ll go with you peacefully, I swear.”

“A work order? You’d like to see some documentation, is that it?”

“Yes, if it’s not too much trouble.”

Death’s eyes returned to their original, and now surprisingly reassuring, black eternal void state. He laid his scythe across my coffee table, gently sliding the last glass of Glenfiddich I’d ever have out of its way. “You’re what we in the death collection business call ‘high maintenance’. Have you ever been called that before? High maintenance?”

I watched as Death reached deep inside his cloak and produced an iPhone 6. He opened an app with a tap of his bony finger.

“You have an iPhone?” I asked.

“Who do you think invents technology, Einstein? I’ll give you a hint. Same person that invented Einstein.”

Death clicked anddeath swiped for several seconds while unconsciously singing the chorus to “Who Are You?” by The Who.

“Alright, Mr. Skeptic, here we go. You are Edward Gaines. Age 61. 27 Canterbury Court, Hohokus, New Jersey. Ring a bell? Satisfied? Let’s go.”

Death snatched the scythe off the table and stood up, motioning me toward the door. “After you, Eddie,” he said.

I couldn’t believe it. “That’s not me,” I said. “You got the wrong guy! My name is Michael Carmody. I’m 42 years old, not 61 and this is 27 Canterbury Place! Not Court!”

“Impossible,” Death said.

“Claire!” I shouted. “Can you come here?”

I watched Death pull out his phone and begin retracing whatever iPhone steps he took to end up in my den in Hohokus, New Jersey. Claire trotted into the room and suddenly stopped short.

“Dad, the curtain’s shaking.”

“It’s Lester. Claire, tell Death what your full name is and our address.”

“Claire Augusta Carmody, I’m three and I live on 27 Canterbury Place, Hohokus, New Jersey. Wait. Did you ask me to say how old?”

“It’s fine. And what’s my name?”

“Michael Carmody,” she said. “Need me to vacuum anything?”

“No. We’re good,” I said, watching as she ran her finger across one of the windowsills checking for dust and being somewhat disappointed in not finding any before leaving the room.

Death held his phone in front of his face. The fiery red coal eyes were back. Suddenly, I could sense there was another presence in the room. Disembodied but palpable just the same.

“What can I help you with,” the voice asked. I recognized it. It was Siri! Even people in the afterlife use her, I thought to myself. No wonder Apple stock is up to $127 already after the split.

“Directions to 27 Canterbury Court, Hohokus, New Jersey,” Death said.

“Sorry Death, I didn’t quite get that,” Siri said.

“I’m shocked,” Death muttered sarcastically. “Directions to 27 Canterbury Court, Hohokus New Jersey.”

“Sorry, I couldn’t find 27 Canterbury Court, Hocus, New Jersey,” Siri said.

“Not Hocus, Hohokus! Hohokus,” Death screamed into his phone. He glared at me. “Why don’t you people have normal town names in this state like Sacramento or Buffalo?”

“Maybe you should direct your anger at Siri,” I said. “She’s the one that screwed up your directions and now my afternoon.”

Death removed the hood of his cloak and scratched the back of his head using the tip of his scythe.  I had the feeling he was in uncharted territory.

I went back to the couch, got under the blanket and flipped the channel back to the golf match. Scottsdale, Arizona. Not a cloud in the sky. All the spectators in short pants. I was already feeling warmer. Death approached.

“Look, I’m really sorry. This was a whole lot easier when we just used index cards. But nowadays everything is iCloud this and iCloud that. Would you believe I got an app on here that tells me what time low tide is on the Styx? I know I put you through a terrible ordeal. Is there any way I can make it up to you?’

I reached for my Glenfiddich, drained the glass and calmly set it back on the table. I looked Death right in the eye. “I don’t know,” I said. “You seem pretty good with that scythe. How are you with a snow shovel?”

© 2015 The Monkey Bellhop and John Hartnett

An End of Life Nightmare By NINA BERNSTEIN SEPT. 25, 2014

SUBjpDYING2-master1050Maureen Stefanides at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital with her father, Joseph Andrey, waiting to move to a nursing home despite their efforts to arrange for 24-hour care at his apartment.CreditVictor J. Blue for The New York Times

We all should be allowed dignity in death.  The story below truly touched my heart… it begins……

Joseph Andrey was 5 years old in 1927 when his impoverished mother sold him to the manager of a popular vaudeville act. He was 91 last year when he told the story again, propped in a wheelchair in the rehabilitation unit of a nursing home where it seemed as though age and infirmity had put a different kind of price on his head.

Craning his neck, he sought the eyes of his daughter, Maureen Stefanides, who had promised to get him out of this place. “I want to go home, to my books and my music,” he said, his voice whispery but intense.

I know someone who recently died at home, surrounded by loved ones, peacefully, beautifully.   The story continues….

He was still her handsome father, the song-and-dance man of her childhood, with a full head of wavy hair and blue eyes that lit up when he talked. But he was gaunt now, warped like a weathered plank, perhaps by late effects of an old stroke, certainly by muscle atrophy and bad circulation in his legs.

Now she was determined to fulfill her father’s dearest wish, the wish so common among frail, elderly people: to die at home.

But it seemed as if all the forces of the health care system were against her — hospitals, nursing homes, home health agencies, insurance companies, and the shifting crosscurrents of public health care spending.

Why is death today so controlled by rules and regulations instead of the person who is dying and their loved ones? Where is the compassion? The respect? Wake up! Changes have to be made to this broken system.

You can read the rest of the story here. I warn you, though… it will enrage you – and if it doesn’t… why?