Does Everything Happen For a Reason?

Somewhere in adolescence, certainly before young adulthood, I heard the saying, “everything happens for a reason.” It seems like I’ve always known this phrase. It is very common and obviously a powerfully meaningful and comforting phrase for many.

But not for all. For some of us, it ranges from empty to offensive to somewhere in-between. If you are a grieving one who has found a reason, or more than one, for your loss, all support to you. If you are a grieving one for whom no reason has been or will be found for the loss that has happened to you, all support to you. And wherever you find yourself on this spectrum, you are invited to read on as all grieving people deserve great heaps of understanding and support.

Is There Purpose in the World?

“Everything happens for a reason” is a tempting perspective: the belief that there is purpose in the world and that purpose finds its expression even in the painful events of our lives.

In this view, there are no accidents, coincidences, or random events. Everything that happens has a purpose or reason behind it. Sometimes the motivating reason seems clear. More often, it is a mystery, and we are detectives gathering clues and searching for patterns and motives. There is comfort in this view as it suggests that we are not alone or abandoned to the randomness of living. Instead, we are part of a bigger, benevolent story, even though the end and structure of that story may never be fully seen and understood, at least in this life. And so, we are supported by a kindness which provides reasons behind even the most difficult of life experiences.

What if There is No Reason?

“Everything happens for a reason” is also a perspective that offers more problems than comfort for many of us. I am among that many at least partially because I have seen too many children die and met too many victims of violence. While some bereaved parents and victims of violence might believe that “everything happens for a reason,” many others cannot.

This does not mean there are no reasons and purposes to be found after loss. “Everything happens for a reason” suggests that a reason is present in every event, like a buried treasure waiting to be found. For many of us who can’t do “everything happens for a reason,” the reason to be found comes into existence after the event. The guiding questions are “in light of this experience, what is my purpose and reason now and what can I learn from this?”

Learning from Loss

Kate Bowler is a stage IV colon cancer survivor who continues to experience chronic pain. She wrote a bestselling book about her experience called Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies That I Have Loved. She also hosts a podcast called Everything Happens with Kate Bowler.

Recently, one of her guests was Rabbi Steve Leder. They talked about his experience with death and pain in his family and as a rabbi of a large congregation. At one point, Rabbi Leder says “…disruption is the only thing that teaches us anything. Pain is the only teacher. Death is the only teacher. And is it worth it? No. Is it worthless? No.”

We can learn from loss—from disruption, pain, and death. Are the lessons we learn worth the cost? For most of us, the answer is “no.” Are those lessons valuable still? Thankfully, for most of us, the answer is “yes.”

Is Pain the Only Teacher?

Rabbi Leder offers additional commentary on learning from loss later in the interview: “Is it worth it? Again, no. But don’t let it be worthless. You know, I say to people all the time, if you have to go through hell, do not come out empty-handed. That’s the best we can do.”

There are lessons to be learned in the most difficult circumstances and in the tragedies of loss. This doesn’t mean our losses were intended for us to learn a lesson. But we can learn still, and it is helpful when we do. We may not be able to avoid going through hell, but we don’t have to leave empty-handed.

I do quibble with Rabbi Leder on one point, and we might actually agree if we sat down and talked about it. I don’t think disruption, pain, and death are our “only” teachers. We can also learn from love, grace, beauty and other experiences in life. And, of course, love, grace, and beauty are often part of disruption, pain, and death. In the interview, Kate Bowler adds a quote from her friend Sam who is a pastor. “If we cannot make it happy, can we at least make it beautiful?” We can try.

Learning from Our Grief

Rachel Naomi Remen expresses a nuanced approach to questions of reason and purpose when she shares a story of attending the funeral of a child in her book, My Grandfather’s Blessings. During the funeral, she is struck with a question: “Is it possible that there may be an unknowable purpose to life itself?” She goes on to reflect, “At that moment, there was a great silence around this question. There is a great silence around it still. Yet having it has enabled me to work with people with cancer year after year and love life, even so.”

Perhaps for some, there is no reason or purpose to be found in life at all. For most of us, however, there is reason and purpose to be found in there somewhere, and where we believe it exists can vary situation to situation. In whatever ways we wrestle with the big questions that come with the big losses of our lives, let us hope to not leave empty-handed.

Greg Adams is Program Coordinator at Center for Good Mourning:

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Greg Adams

Greg Adams is a social worker at Arkansas Children's Hospital (ACH) where he coordinates the Center for Good Mourning, a grief support and outreach program, and works with bereavement support for staff who are exposed to suffering and loss. His past experience at ACH includes ten years in pediatric oncology and 9 years in pediatric palliative care. He has written for and edited The Mourning News, an electronic grief/loss newsletter, since its beginning in 2004. Greg is also an adjunct professor in the University of Arkansas-Little Rock Graduate School of Social Work where he teaches a grief/loss elective and students are told that while the class is elective, grief and loss are not. In 1985, Greg graduated from Baylor University majoring in social work and religion, and he earned a Masters in Social Work from the University of Missouri in 1986. One answer to the question of how he got into the work of grief and death education is that his father was an educator and his mother grew up in the residence part of a funeral home where her father was a funeral director. After growing up in a couple small towns in Missouri south of St. Louis, Greg has lived in Little Rock since 1987. He married a Little Rock native in 1986 and his wife is an early childhood special educator and consultant. Together they have two adult children. Along with his experience in the hospital with death and dying and with working with grieving people of all ages, personal experiences with death and loss have been very impacting and influential. In 1988, Greg’s father-in-law died of an unexpected suicide. In 1996, Greg and his wife lost a child in mid-pregnancy to anencephaly (no brain developed). Greg’s mother died on hospice with cancer in 2008 and his father died after the family decided to stop the ventilator after a devastating episode of sepsis and pneumonia in 2015. Greg has a variety of interests and activities—including slow running, reading, sports, public education, religion, politics, and diversity issues—and is active in his church and community. He is honored to have the opportunity to be a contributor for Open to Hope.

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