Eleanor wrote a pretty great post on shattered assumptions about the world after a death, and she described the following as a common reaction:
“The sense that their death was meaningless may ultimately lead to the question of “Why?!?”
“Why did they have to die? Why did this happen to me? Who is at fault? What can I do to prevent this from happening again?”
You may also fall victim to other people’s assumptions about the meaningfulness of the world. Remember, some people want to believe that bad things only happen to people who deserve it. So if someone has ever made an insensitive comment about why your loved one deserved what happened or how they brought the death upon themselves, this may be why.”
Not sure if this rang true for you, but it rang overwhelmingly true for me. I read it and did a quick inventory of my own quest for “why” along with that of the hundreds of grievers I have seen grapple with this question over the years. Alone in our grief we often believe if we had just parented a little better, if a doctor or a medical facility had done something differently, if we could just have faith in God’s plan, if we had just taken action sooner, things would be different. We go down these roads, hoping to find order.
The human mind is a wondrous thing. It strives to make sense of the world at every swipe. We see faces in inanimate objects. We find patterns where they exist and where they don’t exist. In the case of our losses this order can feel especially important, because in subtle ways we think if we can figure out what the “cause” for a death was we can prevent it from happening again. We can convince ourselves that if we just do something differently next time we won’t be in the same situation again.
Don’t get me wrong, sometimes that is somewhat true – there is a very clear source or cause for a death. There are things that, if done differently in the future, could change the outcome for someone else. There are lessons learned from so many losses: to stop smoking, to avoid risks like drunk driving or texting and driving, to go to those annual check ups. But in many cases we spend weeks, months, years dwelling on coulda, woulda, shouldas, blaming ourselves and others, when the even scarier reality is the world is sometimes a senseless and unexpected place.
I stood at my mom’s wedding recently and an old friend of hers, who knew her back when my dad was still alive, said to me “I still sometimes try to make sense of what happened to your dad and it just never makes sense”. I gently smiled and nodded and thought to myself, well, that is because sometimes life just doesn’t make sense.
There is a second aspect of this whole order to the universe we seek that can come up around a death. That, of course, is our want for grief to make sense. Why are the “five stages” of grief the one and only thing most people know about grief? If I had to guess it is because they put order to something that generally scares the crap out of us. Grief is messy and disorganized and makes us feel like we are going crazy. But if we could just put an order to it. If we could measure it and analyze it and fit it into tidy little stages it sure would feel less scary. It is comforting to imagine it has a neat little beginning, middle, and end. As we have written about many times before, unfortunately it isn’t quite that simple.
When I read Eleanor’s post I thought, we need to pull this whole quest for logic, order and meaning thing out and break it down a little more. Because sometimes we don’t even realize the ways it is impacting us and those around us. So let’s talk about just a few common examples.
Things you may be saying to yourself that is born from this need for order:
• If I had just done X,Y or Z this never would have happened.
• If I hadn’t done X,Y or Z this never would have happened.
• If my loved one who died had just done X,Y or Z this never would have happened.
• If [insert relationship here] had just done something differently this never would have happened.
• This must be punishment for something I have done/something my family did.
• If we had just gone to a different Doctor or different hospital.
• Something is wrong with me, I am not grieving right.
• Something is wrong with my [insert relationship here], (s)he is not grieving right.
Insensitive things others may be saying to you that are born from this need for order:
• People have to want recovery/sobriety. (After an overdose, implying your loved one just didn’t want it/try)
• Did you try to get him help? (After a suicide, implying there must have been something to do you just failed to do it)
• He must not have been taking good care of himself. (implying if you just do it all ‘right’ you’ll never get sick and die)
• Oh, you are just in Anger phase, it’ll pass. (implying there is a neat little order that they can predict about how you’re feeling)
• Don’t you think you should be ‘over it’ by now? (implying there is a ‘recipe’ to get this grief thing right, any you’re not following it)
• Everything happens for a reason. (This one pretty much sums it up).
So what can you do?
On a very simple level, you can start by becoming aware of how some of your thoughts, especially those guilt and blame thoughts, may be coming from this want to put an order to things. Thinking about those thoughts, and reality testing those thoughts, can actually help. For example, I may be consumed by thoughts of self-blame that I internalize, beating myself up all the time for being a bad person, a failed daughter/wife/friend. One way I can start to dig out of that cycle is to determine whether that underlying thought is actually true, or whether it might just be coming from my want to put order to things and blame someone, so I blame myself. It may not actually be true that I am as much to blame as I think I am. The same can be true to blame that we are directing towards others.
When it comes to grief itself, it is reeeeeeally tempting to hope there is an order. Assuming you’ll move through five neat stages, in order, over the course of a year, and then you’ll be back to normal. If you find yourself beating yourself up, or someone else up, because it isn’t working that way it is important to take a step back and say, maybe the problem isn’t me. Maybe the problem is that I (and society at large) have tried to create a simple order to things because it feels safer. As terrifying as it is to let the order go, there is an immense value in being open to your grief as it comes and showing yourself some self-compassion, rather than assuming you are doing it ‘wrong’.
What’s the final word?
It can be hard to take a hard look at our thoughts to see if our want for order is creating some unhealthy blame or self-blame but, in the words of Henry Adams, “Chaos was the law of nature; Order was the dream of man.” As scary as that is, there can be some liberation there.