Among the most annoying of platitudes are the ones that suggest you needed out-of-order death or a massive life-changing injury in order to learn something, or to become something special.
Here's just a short list of some of the things I was told after my partner died in an accident. I wish I could say it was just me, but every grieving person has a similar list:
• At least now you get to know what's really important.
• You must have really needed to learn about letting go.
• I hear loss like this makes you really appreciate the little things - it makes you stronger, too.
• I wonder if you made an agreement in a past life that you would learn about this stuff together. Or maybe you did something bad in a past life. Or maybe he did.
• Think of how much nicer you'll be, now that you know how much pain people can be in. You've been on that side now, so you know.
• Well, everyone needs to learn how to be less attached. That's what all those Eastern teachings say. We're all too "attached."
I can't even type this stuff without rolling my eyes.
There is such a pervasive weirdness in our culture around grief. We judge and we blame, dissect and minimize.
People look for the flaws in what you've done to get you to this place: She didn't exercise enough. Didn't take enough vitamins. Took too many. He shouldn't have been walking on that side of the road. If he's that upset, he must not have been very stable before this happened. I bet they had unresolved childhood issues - see what unhealed issues do to you?
These are all things we think and say when we want to distance ourselves from someone else's pain.
By looking for the flaws in either the griever or the one who died, we make it less likely in our minds that such a thing would ever happen to us. We wouldn't make those same mistakes. We're safe.
And you know what else? If that unthinkable thing happened to us anyway, we wouldn't take it so hard. We'd find the lesson in it. We'd become softer, gentler, more understanding.
And, man, finally, we'd get to know what was really important. We wouldn't waste time on the trivial things.
People, look. Grief is not an enlightenment program for a select few.
Everyone in the world is not running around being clueless, hating on people, not knowing what's important to them, floundering along with an underdeveloped set of skills, waiting -- just waiting -- for some massive thing to come along and teach them how to be real.
Seriously. If out of order death, and the grief that rushes into that empty space, were meant as a wake-up call to the unenlightened to get their sh*t together, we would see the demographics of grief and loss look incredibly different: only self-absorbed jerks would get served up this lesson.
Only those truly clueless about love, relatedness, kindness, and connection would receive this harsh "lesson" in learning to be softer and more kind.
If you take a look around, you can see that this is clearly not the case.
I'm pretty even-tempered, but I get enraged when I think about all the extra added pain that is loaded on to already grieving hearts: the correction, the judgment, the dismissal, the subtle and not-subtle shaming delivered by a clueless population, who think of everything in terms of how you earned this, or what you need to learn from it.
Look, you can't decide to redeem or dismiss grief just by deciding it's a lesson someone needed to learn. You don't get to decide which grief is valid based on your judgment of whether the person did enough wrong, or not enough right, to make this happen.
You can't fault-find other people enough to guarantee your own safety. You can't inure yourself to loss by finding the glorious "life lesson" inside. It doesn't work that way.
For people in pain: you should know you did absolutely nothing to deserve this. You didn't need to learn anything that allegedly only intense grief can teach.
Maybe (a big maybe), maybe your grief has made you kinder, or less inclined to argue about stupid stuff. Maybe you've rearranged some priorities in your life. You didn't need grief in order to do that. Grief is one path to a deeper life, but there are lots of roads to that castle. I bet you'd already gone down a deeper path of your own.
There might be lessons here, about trusting your own heart, leaning into the places you are deeply broken. There might be places to explore, ways to find out if any of your deep self remains, given what you have endured.
So learn, yes. Study your own heart, yes.
And please, also know this: You did nothing wrong. You did not need to learn what was important.
You already knew.
How about you? Have you been told you needed to "learn something important" because of your loss? What things have you been forced to learn that you really did not need to know? Let us know in the comments, or send me an email.
Megan Devine is writer, grief advocate, and clinical counselor. You can schedule a free 30 minute phone call to talk about your grief by clicking here to choose a time on her calendar. Megan is the author of the audio program When Everything is Not Okay: Practical Tools to Help You Stay in Your Heart & Not Lose Your Mind. You can find this and other resources on her website, www.refugeingrief.com