Everything Doesn’t Happen For A Reason

What to say, and what not to say, when someone’s going through a tough time

Posted Jan 30, 2016

You know that person. You know her--the friend who’s “going through something.”

You know, that friend you talk to on the phone, and after you hang up you say, “Oh, she’s a mess.”

The next time you see her, you want to say something supportive, because you really do care. You say what comes to mind. You’ve heard these words so many times before, and they seem like they’d be very comforting:

“I know exactly how you feel. You know, everything happens for a reason. Cheer up! Think positive. It’s totally for the best, you just don’t know it now. Time heals. This could turn out to be the best thing that ever happened to you. God has a plan.”

You feel a lot better now, because you’ve said at least half a dozen really thoughtful, sensitive things.

And you’ve probably made your friend feel even worse.

I’m not kidding.

When I asked my friends to tell me the worst things they’ve heard at a difficult time, everything up there was on the list. Penultimate was “everything happens for a reason.” If that’s been your go-to supportive statement, you may want to rethink things.

The list of things we can go through is so long:

  • Life transitions that can be great but always present challenges, like changing jobs, moving, or having a child.
  • Losses, like the death of anyone or the loss of a dream. Infertility, miscarriage, and pregnancy loss fall into this category, as do divorce, injury, and unemployment.
  • Illness, of body or mind.
  • Uncertainty, insecurity, and fear, about so many things.

Basically, “going through something” includes any experience of change or loss, whether anticipated or unexpected, that contributes to responses that look like disappointment, sadness, or even devastation.

Because we aren’t going to be able to avoid people going through something, we have to practice getting more comfortable with other people’s discomfort--something that does not come easily.

Vulnerability researcher Brené Brown notices that we so strongly need people to “rise strong” that we “reflexively look away” when we witness someone’s “still-incomplete healing.”

Brown writes in her latest book, “to pretend that we can get to helping, generous, and brave without navigating through tough emotions like desperation, shame, and panic is a profoundly dangerous and misguided assumption.”

Why are those well-intentioned statements I listed above so unhelpful? They try to cover up or push aside very real pain. We so want to fix it, make it better, not just because we don’t want our friend to be in pain, but because it is so uncomfortable to witness her pain.

While you’re saying “supportive” things, your friend is thinking:

“You have no idea what I’m feeling. I can tell because you’re saying all of these things that have nothing to do with what I’m going through. Many, many things happen for no reason at all. Even if there is a reason this has happened to me, I’m not ready to think about it. I just need to be sad right now. I wish you could just let me.”

And the whole time, she’s smiling at you. To help you feel better.

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

Adversity strategist Tim Lawrence writes: “Some things in life cannot be fixed. They can only be carried.”

It is not our place to judge which things are to be fixed and which are to be carried. Of all of the possible things to go through I listed above, some people will feel that they’ve gone through it and been “fixed,” and other people will live with the pain of those experiences for life. Many of us are somewhere in between.

There’s a disclaimer on the list of things that you shouldn’t say. Being a good friend means being able to listen in a way that allows you to decide what to say based on who you’re showing care and concern for. This level of nuance is not for everyone. If it feels very hard--which it is--I’d suggest focusing on the “things to say” list I’ll present below and picking something from that menu.

What are some examples of our complexity? A friend of mine shared that she’s felt hurt when someone “presumes sadness can only and should be fixed with gratitude, as if it a) needs fixing, and b) means you’re not being/feeling grateful.” To be a good friend to this person, you’d need to know that she’s tremendously grateful, and also, at times, tremendously sad. You’d have to be able to hold that complexity.

To this point, there are some things that you can say to some people some of the time that you can’t say to other people at any time. What do I mean?

Some of these things, some of the time, are exactly the right thing to say. An example: God has a plan. For some people, that suggestion is a great source of comfort. For others, it feels like a slap in the face.

Same story with “You’re so strong/brave/courageous,” or “You’ve got this.” Some people will find this kind of statement to give them strength they didn’t know they had. Others will think, “I don’t feel strong. I don’t think you really know me.”

Now, what can you pretty much always do for a friend going through something?

These were the suggestions that rose to the top when I asked my friends what people had done that had been helpful:

Care packages: Proving actions do speak louder than words, small gifts or collections of items came up many times. Chocolate, tea, coffee, flowers, books, coloring, books, candles, a blanket, music (a Spotify playlist, an iTunes album, an actual CD)--something comforting and easy, requiring nothing from your friend but to say thank you and feel cared for.

Donations to a cause important to your friend: Especially appropriate after a loss, but actually fine at any time as a more tangible way of saying I’m thinking of you and I care about you.

“I’m sorry.” That’s it. It’s that simple. That leaves room for the person you’re trying to comfort to say whatever she wants to say. Or to say nothing at all.

If you want to say a little more--and you really mean it--“I’m here to help any way I can.” Or, “I’m here with you.” With you, rather than for you, means that I’m here to ride it out with you. (Listen to Brené Brown distinguishing between empathy and sympathy. Empathy, she says, is “feeling with people.”) It’s okay to let someone be the expert of their own experience, to just listen and be there with them as a witness to what they’re carrying.

If you do love this person, it’s okay--really okay--to say it. If you are comfortable giving a hug and you think your friend might want a hug, a hug works. Wonders.

Copyright 2016 Elana Premack Sandler, All Rights Reserved