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.
What to Send Instead of Flowers
When my dad died there were more flower arrangements at the funeral home than we could count. Though we were overwhelmed by the support of friends and family that those flowers represented, the tradition of sending flowers has always struck me as a bit strange. Someone has died, so their friends and family all give them something that will die too. Hmmm . . .
Don’t get me wrong, my family is Greek and Greeks love flowers at funerals — the more the better. So I know that sometimes flowers are the perfect gesture after a death. But with my personal aversion to giving flowers after a loss there are a few alternatives worth sharing for those looking for alternatives. This is just a start, so if you have other ideas of what to send instead of flowers please leave a comment. We want as comprehensive a list as possible.
Check for an “in lieu of flower”
Sometimes families have already told you what you can do instead! Check the obituary, funeral home website, or call the funeral home to ask if the family has offered an “in lieu of flowers” suggestion.
Though this post may not sound like it, I am actually a plant lover! A tree or shrub the family can plant in memory of their loved one is a nice lasting memorial. Consider whether the family has a space for a tree or shrub and pick one that you feel would make a nice memorial. There are many beautiful memorial stones you can find here on the With Sympathy Gifts website. Even if a tree may be too much, these garden stones are a nice gift on their own.
Photos the Family Doesn’t Have
Many times as a friend or extended family member you may have photos that the immediate family does not have. Consider putting together a memorial album or CD of photos the family doesn’t have of their loved one. As the weeks and months pass they will likely be glad to have as many pictures as possible.
A Self-Care Gift
One of the most difficult things for people when they are dealing with the death of a family member is taking care of themselves. Giving someone a gift such as a gift certificate for a massage, manicure, or even a private yoga class (some instructors will come to your home) is a nice gesture that may help them take time for themselves. A self-care basket could also be nice if you don’t think they will be up for going out (think nice pajamas, bath items, a candle, a magazine, dvd etc). Consider the person who has experienced the loss – if they love movies or baseball, tickets to a game or a movie gift card may be more appropriate.
A Dedication or Donation
Consider a dedication or donation you could make that will reflect the life of that person, or your relationship with them. The options for this are endless – if this is a friend from high school or college, consider a memorial donation to that institution. If the person was involved in a church or community organization call to see if a donation could be made or an item dedicated. If the individual had any interest, from sports to art to animals and anything in between, seek a non-profit that may be working in those areas and make a contribution in their memory. Most places will send an acknowledgement to the family that a donation was made in memory, so make sure to check and provide the family member’s address.
A Memorial Guestbook
This is not just any guestbook! The Guestbook Store sells a customized memorial guestbook where those who attend a memorial service can sign not just their name, but also share a memory of the person and a special message to the family. The service is often a blur for families, so having this book will allow guest to share memories and messages that the family will be able to look back on later. Click here to check out their memorial book!
If your co-worker has lost someone and you are considering an alternative to flowers, consider donating a day of leave. Most companies only offer a couple days of bereavement time and, if their loss was not immediate family, they may receive no leave time at all. Donating a day can mean the difference between someone having to return to work the day after a funeral versus having a day or two to rest before returning to work. Check with your HR department to see if your company allows this and what the process is.
Something For the Kids
Though one of the first questions people will ask after a loss is how the children who were affected are doing, children are rarely considered when thinking of things that can be given to a family. Children can often feel forgotten with all the attention around a death and funeral. Any small gift can remind them that you are thinking of them. Think of the age and interest of the children – a stuffed animal (to cuddle with for comfort), a journal (to express feelings), coloring books, activity books, movies, or video games (to occupy themselves when everyone else is busy) are all easy suggestions that will let a child know you haven’t forgotten them.
When a loved one is ill or dies housework (understandably) gets put on the back burner. This can continue for weeks or months as we grieve. Immediately following a loss friends and family are often stopping by the house and it can be a big source of stress that the house hasn’t been cleaned up. A gift certificate to a cleaning service (even better, with an offer to call and get it scheduled) can be a relief to the family. You could offer to clean their home, but keep in mind that many people are self-conscious about their mess and would rather have a stranger do this than a friend.
Lawn Care Service
Similar to the above suggestion, many times the person who has died was the person mowing the lawn and taking care of other outside needs. Even if this is not the case, taking care of those things can be an unnecessary stress on the family. A gift certificate to a lawn care service (even better, with an offer to call and get it scheduled) is a thoughtful and useful gesture.
Book of Letters
One gesture we have seen and found incredibly meaningful is organizing friends to compile a book of letters. This is common when there are young children, as friends can write letters to the children about their parent, grandparent, or other family member. But this doesn’t need to be limited to children. A book of letters to a parent about their adult child can be extremely meaningful, as there are often many things their child has done and lives they have touched that the parents are unaware of. This type of book is minimal in cost (all you need is a nice binder and possibly some page protectors, or a bound book that each person writes directly in) but it requires a lot of effort and coordination in contacting friends and gathering the letters. This is a gesture many families will appreciate for years to come.
Food is a tricky one, though it is a common gesture sent instead of flowers (or in addition to flowers!). This probably requires its own post, but for now I will just say be thoughtful about how, when, and what you bring if you decide on food. Right after a death families are often overwhelmed with food. In a few weeks after the death a gift of food will probably be much more appreciated than right away, when the family has more casseroles than they can shove in the freezer. A nice basket of non-perishable foods can be nice, especially snacks they can offer to people who stop by unexpectedly. A good standby if you really want to stick with food may be a gift card to a local restaurant or carry out. Another nice offer would be to grab their grocery list and go shopping for them.
Flowers or Plants
If you decide flowers are the right thing for you to send, you can make this more thoughtful than a standard arrangement. First, consider the person who died – is there a plant, flower, or color than reminds you of that person for any reason? If so, that may be a nice choice. If not, decide if you want to send flowers or a plant. The plant is something the family can keep, though not all families will want or appreciate that. Then consider if there is a flower you have found particularly comforting. When we lost my dad someone sent an arrangement of all white irises. It was so beautiful and, for whatever reason, I found it so comforting. Though I rarely send flowers now after a death, when I do think flowers are the best gesture I will send white irises because they brought comfort to me.
Buy your self a gift:
If you are looking for concrete, helpful ideas for being a good friend to a griever, don’t miss our ebook: Guide to Supporting a Griever (without sticking your foot in your mouth). Don’t worry, it is cheap and jam packed with helpful info (no angels, rainbows, inspirational quotes, or fluff — just helpful tips). You can find it here on amazon:
These are just a few ideas. If you are looking for ways to support people after a death, check out our post on Supporting a Friend After a Death. If you are worried about what to say to a friend, you can check out our list of What NOT to Say After a Death for some guidance. If you have no idea what to write on your sympathy card check out our post onHow to Write a Sympathy Card.
The post today was from What’s Your Grief…
Many of you probably have other suggestions to add to this list, please leave your suggestion in the comments below. Thank you, from Patti, the Diva of Death
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.
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?
It’s amazing what you can buy and have delivered to you today via the internet. Chinese food, purses, shoes, gag gifts, chocolate covered fruit, sweaters, shoes, boots, dogs, toys, books, movies…the list is endless. And now… it even includes FUNERALS!!
Yes, you read that right!
You can now plan ahead and pay for your funeral on line, You can plan a funeral in advance or plan a funeral at the time of death. You can select a casket, urn, even butterflies to be released; all on line – including paying for it.
Personally, I think this is a GREAT idea, but then I hate shopping. In fact, my girlfriends usually have to bribe me with a margaritas to get me to go with them.
I remember going with my sisters to the funeral home in a hazy fog to finalize our mother’s arrangements. The fog I was in was not due to margaritas, but exhaustion from the hours spent at the hospital, the shedding of tears, the runs to the airport to pick up family and answering the same questions over and over again. When we went shopping to find a beautiful gown to be buried in I just couldn’t participate. Shopping is hard enough for me on a normal day, but for something for my mother who had just passed away… I just sunk to the floor and waited for my sisters to find something.
Today, you don’t have to do that. Funeral firms are realizing that as wonderful as their services and employees are, we don’t really like facing them. They are located in a place we really want no part of. . . the place where we last viewed our loved ones.