Grief is hard. It's a multi-faceted experience that can consume months or years of life, steadily absorbing precious energy and turning once-happy people into hollow, exhausted husks of their former selves. Grief is also different for each person who experiences it. Which means that sweeping statements about how to support grieving loved ones are seldom helpful or universally true.
But here's one generalization that I believe is quite safe to make across the board: Telling someone in the throes of grief that “Everything happens for a reason” is extremely unlikely to give them solace.
If you're a person of faith, this phrase may resonate with you. And it's certainly possible that reminding a similarly-minded person about God's greater plans or good-flowing-from-bad-fortune might strike a chord. But a true personal catastrophe—losing a child, being told you have a deadly disease, learning that your beloved spouse has been wounded while serving in the armed forces—can decimate faith, temporarily or even permanently. And insisting that devastating loss or injury is not only good but necessary for growth is dismissive and impersonal. It makes the grieving person feel like their emotions are frivolous, their loss trivial or insignificant in the grand scheme of things. And it implies that feeling grief is shallow and lazy, a way of ducking responsibility for pain or trauma.
But what else can you say? As a friend or family member, how can you offer support and express your understanding?
Clinical mental health therapist Megan Devine witnessed the accidental drowning of her beloved partner three months before his 40th birthday. Since then and because of her own experiences with loss, she has dedicated her practice to helping others with grief writing and processing, and has created grief support tools grounded in acknowledgement. In this article —written by her pupil, Tim Lawrence—she offers this elegant phrase:
“Some things in life cannot be fixed. They can only be carried.”
Lawrence points out that saying this allows you to steer clear of advice and meaningless platitudes. It shows that you see the pain, acknowledge the grief, and recognize the person struggling to understand this new, altered life. Lawrence is no stranger to grieving himself, and says “I've grieved many times in my life. I've been overwhelmed with shame so strong it nearly killed me. The ones who helped—the only ones who helped—were those who were simply there.” He urges anyone who wants to offer consolation and support to just show up, stand by those who are hurting, and openly acknowledge their pain.
Grief is not a problem that needs solving, or an illness with a cure. It's not a process that can be helped along with kind words or an issue that can be resolved more quickly through specific actions. It's vast and changeable and constantly shifting. Each person will cope with it in a different way and on a different timeline. And respecting that is essential.
So if someone in your life is struggling with grief, give them space to struggle. Listen. Be present. Don't worry about offering help or saying the perfect thing. Tell them you see that they are suffering, and you are suffering alongside them. And tell them you know that some things in life can only be carried.