“I have a friend who had the same thing happen to them.”
“I’m sure it’ll be okay.”
“It’s supposed to be this way.”
“It’ll happen someday. You just need to be patient.”
“Everything happens for a reason.”
These phrases are so often said from a place of genuine kindness from people you love and who love you back. But man do they hurt. They hurt because, despite their intention, they undermine the impact of heartbreaks that occur so frequently they have become commonplace. Children leaving home, a parent dying, going through a divorce, having a miscarriage, receiving a diagnosis for yourself or someone you love, struggling with infertility, losing a job. We seek to reassure people that these events are normal, but in doing so we miss the point: that when it is happening to us it hurts so much that it can feel like your whole world is coming apart.
I do not believe everything happens for a reason. I have worked with too many incredible people who have suffered extensively to believe that. I do, however, believe that it is possible to learn from everything we’ve encountered – learn about ourselves, the world, and each other. The pain of these events changes who we are as humans. The unremarkable years of my life did not do much to shift who I am as a person, but the nearly unbearable years certainly did. Those are the years and the moments and the experiences that shape us if we let them.
The reassurances provided are largely meant to explain away or minimize the experience of pain. They are said because they feel good to the person saying them. They are an answer. Or, at the very least, a way of distancing from another person’s pain. I have done this many times to people I love. I didn’t know the impact at the time, but now I do. And I know why I used to do it. People who are not in pain don’t tend to respond well to witnessing pain. It makes us uncomfortable and we do whatever we can to shift the way a person is feeling, even if it ends up being invalidating. The outcome is a damaged connection between two people; the person in pain won’t seek connection because they know others can’t show up. And that leaves them alone.
I have also witnessed the rationing out sadness and grief when painful things happen. Only the person closest to the tragedy is allowed to feel the greatest sadness; then the next closest person should feel slightly less; and so forth. We spend a great deal of time determining which people are allowed to feel pain and at what level. I would argue that there is an infinite amount of sadness and grief to go around. Similar to joy, it is bottomless. You are not stealing from the pile of someone else’s sadness by feeling your own. When we create space for emotion, we begin the process of learning and putting ourselves back together. Ignoring, numbing, minimizing, shaming, and distracting ourselves from pain will never let you expand your understanding of who you are. Let it change you. Even if it hurts.
My son was diagnosed as autistic when he was almost three. He hadn’t started talking yet and when we took him to be evaluated at the urging of his pediatrician, they said he qualified in 4 categories (out of 5) and would be receiving a diagnosis and services. My first baby. I cannot effectively convey how much this stopped me in my tracks. My initial thought was whether he would ever be able to communicate. My next thought was wondering what my body had done wrong when I was growing him that set him up to face greater challenges in life. As he continues to grow, I have learned so much from him and how he sees the world. That despite what we imagine about the kind of parents we will become, our children will always teach us what kind of a parent they need us to be. That the world doesn’t need a bunch of people that are exactly the same. That I can adapt and protect and feel in a way I did not know I was capable of until him. I can say all of that with perspective because he’s 12 now and I no longer feel the pain of people not understanding him when he speaks, or looking at me like it’s my fault that my child is unmanageable, or being told that he needs additional services. That part is over now. But I am going to face a new kind of pain that I have not felt just yet thanks to middle school. It is coming and it will change me again.
We cannot do any of this alone. We need people who will walk beside us in this life and can hang through the toughest times. People who will come to our parents’ funerals, to doctor’s appointments, to sit on the couch with us until there are no more tears left. People who will bear witness without trying to fix the unfixable. These are the people who have earned the right to be next to you when you’re in pain. And we’ve earned the right to be next to them. And perhaps, when presented with the opportunity, we try saying:
“This hurts so much, and you don’t deserve it.”
“I know there isn’t anything I can say to make this better, but I promise I will listen as long as it takes.”
“I don’t know why this happened, but I can see how deeply painful it is for you.”
What I want you to hear from me is that I don’t care if something that is painful is also common. I care if it hurt you. Life is painful and the experience of events like these does not make them less important. It makes them an opportunity to show up and stay present without retreating. Expect nothing less from others and be nothing less right back.