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.
For many years I worked in palliative care. My patients were those who had gone home to die. Some incredibly special times were shared. I was with them for the last three to twelve weeks of their lives.
People grow a lot when they are faced with their own mortality. I learnt never to underestimate someone’s capacity for growth. Some changes were phenomenal. Each experienced a variety of emotions, as expected, denial, fear, anger, remorse, more denial and eventually acceptance. Every single patient found their peace before they departed though, every one of them. When questioned about any regrets they had or anything they would do differently, common themes surfaced again and again. Here are the most common five:
1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
This was the most common regret of all. When people realise that their life is almost over and look back clearly on it, it is easy to see how many dreams have gone unfulfilled. Most people had not honoured even a half of their dreams and had to die knowing that it was due to choices they had made, or not made.
It is very important to try and honour at least some of your dreams along the way. From the moment that you lose your health, it is too late. Health brings a freedom very few realise, until they no longer have it.
2. I wish I didn’t work so hard.
This came from every male patient that I nursed. They missed their children’s youth and their partner’s companionship. Women also spoke of this regret. But as most were from an older generation, many of the female patients had not been breadwinners. All of the men I nursed deeply regretted spending so much of their lives on the treadmill of a work existence.
By simplifying your lifestyle and making conscious choices along the way, it is possible to not need the income that you think you do. And by creating more space in your life, you become happier and more open to new opportunities, ones more suited to your new lifestyle.
3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
Many people suppressed their feelings in order to keep peace with others. As a result, they settled for a mediocre existence and never became who they were truly capable of becoming. Many developed illnesses relating to the bitterness and resentment they carried as a result.
We cannot control the reactions of others. However, although people may initially react when you change the way you are by speaking honestly, in the end it raises the relationship to a whole new and healthier level. Either that or it releases the unhealthy relationship from your life. Either way, you win.
4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
Often they would not truly realise the full benefits of old friends until their dying weeks and it was not always possible to track them down. Many had become so caught up in their own lives that they had let golden friendships slip by over the years. There were many deep regrets about not giving friendships the time and effort that they deserved. Everyone misses their friends when they are dying.
It is common for anyone in a busy lifestyle to let friendships slip. But when you are faced with your approaching death, the physical details of life fall away. People do want to get their financial affairs in order if possible. But it is not money or status that holds the true importance for them. They want to get things in order more for the benefit of those they love. Usually though, they are too ill and weary to ever manage this task. It is all comes down to love and relationships in the end. That is all that remains in the final weeks, love and relationships.
5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.
This is a surprisingly common one. Many did not realise until the end that happiness is a choice. They had stayed stuck in old patterns and habits. The so-called ‘comfort’ of familiarity overflowed into their emotions, as well as their physical lives. Fear of change had them pretending to others, and to their selves, that they were content. When deep within, they longed to laugh properly and have silliness in their life again.
When you are on your deathbed, what others think of you is a long way from your mind. How wonderful to be able to let go and smile again, long before you are dying.
Life is a choice. It is YOUR life. Choose consciously, choose wisely, choose honestly. Choose happiness.
According to a story by CNN “We’ve all wondered what it’s like to die. Now there’s a game that claims it can fulfill our curiosity, without actually killing us.”
I did say that some of my posts would be humorous, some factual, thought-provoking, and indeed – some will be just plain weird. If you clicked on the link to the article, did you notice that it was under travel? It seems that this one definitely falls into the just plain weird category. . . or does it?
A new theme park opened this past September in China. One of the rides is a “death simulator”. A DEATH SIMULATOR? My first thought was “How?” Is the entrance to the ride a long tunnel filled with bright white lights? Do you reach the end of the tunnel and a shimmering white figure speaks to you, helping you review your life – what you’ve done, how you’ve done it, and to whom? Does it end with an ascent or a descent?
Ding and his partner Huang Wei-ping went to great lengths researching their game, investigating the cremation process that typically awaits 50% of Chinese people after death.
The pair visited a real crematorium and asked to be sent through the furnace with the flames turned off.
“Ding went in the crematory first and it was stressful for me to observe from the outside,” says Huang.
“The controller of the crematory was also very nervous; he usually just focuses on sending bodies in, but not on bringing them back out.”
When it came to Huang’s turn, he found it unbearable.
“It was getting really hot. I couldn’t breathe and I thought my life was over,” he said.
The pair say realism is essential to provoke participants into thinking about life and death.
The why was quickly answered once I read several articles regarding this thrill (?) ride.
CNN: We’ve all wondered what it’s like to die. Now there’s a game that claims it can fulfill our curiosity, without actually killing us.
Business Insider: The creators were motivated to build the game, which was first shown at an exhibition of social enterprises at Gongyi Xintiandi in Shanghai, following their own individual periods of “soul searching”.
My curiosity got hold of me and I did more searching to find out how common this is. Are there others who are simulating death experiences to make you think about life?
A scroll on the wall read “If you don’t know death, how will you know life?” (pictured above) Jia stepped into one of the coffins and sat down. The room was permeated with a sad melody. Jia was given 15 minutes to write down her “last words” on a piece of paper.
Then, she lay on her back in the coffin, her face covered by a piece of thin, white cloth. The coffin was closed. After five minutes in darkness and silence, the lid was opened and Jia experienced a “rebirth.”
All of this took place at Lingxin Culture and Communication Company (3/F, Bldg 1, 18 Wuwei Road East, 6111-2894). The company claims to be the first on the Chinese mainland to offer such a “death experience” to the public. It began trialling the experiences in April, and so far more than 100 people have taken part.
My most intimate experience with dying was with my mother the last year of her life. As I watched her health, but never her spirits, fade we chatted about many things. I asked her many questions during that year:
- What were her favorite memories?
- What was the most important advice she had for me?
- Did she have any regrets, disappointments, things she’d like to change?
- Had I made her proud?
- Was she afraid?
It seems from all that was written above, the experience of death’ allows each of us to do some soul-searching. And if you are still breathing and reading this, then you DO know ahead of time. We are all in the process of dying, so think about it. Talk about it. Discuss it with your family. Laugh, share, love, forgive. . . tempus fugit!
I’ve been thinking about funeral music lately. The songs played at funerals while photos of the person’s life are being shown. Why was that particular song selected? What meaning does it have that perhaps only a few of the visitors know?
Standing around my mother’s grave, my family sang “Leaving on a Jet Plane” Not a normal selection indeed, but it was a song that we all knew and sang together anytime the family gathered for any reason. The guitars would come out, someone would start playing it.. and we’d all join in. Singing the family favorites. Leaving on a Jet Plane, Family Tradition, Sloop John B, I Walk the Line and many, many others.
So on that very sad day – ALL of us…. standing around my mother’s fresh grave right next to my daddy’s grave, and filled with sadness & grief … well, we did what we always did. . . .
The guitars came out and we just started singing.
When we thought of the words, “I’m leaving on a jet plane” we started looking sideways at each other and smiling. Soon, we were giggling. What a send off!!
Then we got quiet/ One by one we started placing flowers on her grave. We held each other. We cried while looking around at our family.. our big crazy family… and knew that Lt. Col Charles & Mrs. Doris Parrish would be pleased.
I’m curious…. what songs have you chosen for your funeral?
**Note – I do not own any copyright to any of the attached videos. I shared the links from YouTube.
He is going to give is the answer. Stick around.
Harry Edsel Smith of Albany, New York:
Born 1903 – Died 1942
Looked up the elevator shaft to see if the car was on the way down. It was.
In a Thurmont, Maryland cemetery:
Here lies an Atheist, all dressed up and no place to go.
On the grave of Ezekial Aikle in East Dalhousie Cemetery, Nova Scotia:
Here lies Ezekial Aikle, Age 102.
Only The Good Die Young.
In a London, England cemetery:
Here lies Ann Mann,
Who lived an old maid but died an old Mann.
Dec. 8, 1767
In a Ribbesford, England cemetery:
The children of Israel wanted bread,
And the Lord sent them manna.
Clark Wallace wanted a wife,
AAnd the Devil sent him Anna.
Do not pass by my epitaph, traveler.
But having stopped, listen and learn, then go your way.
There is no boat in Hades, no ferryman Charon,
No caretaker Aiakos, no dog Cerberus.
All we who are dead below
Have become bones and ashes, but nothing else.
I have spoken to you honestly, go on, traveler,
Lest even while dead I seem loquacious to you.
In a Ruidoso, New Mexico cemetery:
Here lies Johnny Yeast… Pardon me for not rising.
In a Uniontown, Pennsylvania cemetery:
Here lies the body of Jonathan Blake.
Stepped on the gas instead of the brake.
In a Silver City, Nevada, cemetery:
Here lays The Kid.
We planted him raw.
He was quick on the trigger
But slow on the draw.
A lawyer’s epitaph in England:
Sir John Strange. Here lies an honest lawyer, and that is Strange.
John Penny’s epitaph in the Wimborne, England cemetery:
Reader, if cash thou art in want of any,
Dig 6 feet deep and thou wilt find a Penny.
In a cemetery in Hartscombe, England:
On the 22nd of June, Jonathan Fiddle went out of tune.
Anna Hopewell’s grave in Enosburg Falls, Vermont:
Here lies the body of our Anna,
Done to death by a banana.
It wasn’t the fruit that laid her low,
But the skin of the thing that made her go.
On a grave from the 1880s in Nantucket, Massachusetts:
Under the sod and under the trees,
Lies the body of Jonathan Pease.
He is not here, there’s only the pod.
Pease shelled out and went to God.
In a cemetery in England:
Remember man, as you walk by,
As you are now, so once was I.
As I am now, so shall you be.
Remember this and follow me.
To which someone replied by writing on the tombstone:
To follow you I’ll not consent.
Until I know which way you went