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When Painful Things Happen and You Don’t Understand Why

We all have problems. The way we solve them is what makes us different.” ~Unknown

I used to be a “why” person. Why you ask? Because after receiving my middle daughter’s diagnosis of a neurological condition, I got really hooked into “why me” mode, and it just ate away at every fiber of my core.

I obsessed over “why.” Why did it happen? I needed to make sense out of a senseless fluke of nature.

I was devastated and beside myself with the raging emotions of grief—the anger, bitterness, and resentment—and the dance in my head and the ache in my heart kept circling and banging into the graffitied wall of  W H Y in big black letters.

Here is where I remained for a long year of ranting and raving in a therapist’s office.

I sought out lectures and classes on the famous theme of “why bad things happen to good people.” (As I’m sure you all know, there’s a book by the same title.) I was totally stuck in this place.

I felt so unwound and so out of control that I thought being able to wrap my head around a “real” reason would somehow help me in coping.

I thought if I understood the “why,” I could deal with it better.

I often say and truly believe that if I can understand where someone is coming from, I can more readily and easily accept our differences and disagreements; that this breeds tolerance and respect, and sets the stage to agree to disagree.

I somehow thought this to be similar in my acutely grief-stricken situation—that if I could understand where this came from and why this happened to my baby, I could accept it more easily and therefore cope with it.

I was drowning in this “why me,” in the unfairness of it and the idea of bad things happening to good people.

Then of course I went down the path of “what did I do wrong,” looking for that dose of self-recrimination.  And oh I had plenty of arrows with which to shoot myself. We can all become our worst enemy when we look for that scapegoat. I was it for myself. 

My therapist became my healer.

He held my pain for months and months until it was able to wash through me and I could actually air it out. I came to understand and grasp the idea that these are the big unanswerables. There were no answers to the “whys.”

We could create tales and come up with hypothetical reasons to tell ourselves to make us feel better, but there are no “real” answers.    

The sharpness of the pain lessened. There was a gradual shift in my emotions. Whereas they had been like dark threatening clouds with no sunlight peeking through, the clouds started lifting, allowing some rays to shine in once I was able to work through some of those painful feelings.

I became able to see and appreciate Nava’s beautiful nature. I could start to focus on what and who she was rather than on what and who she wasn’t.

“Why” began to take a back seat.

I had to focus on my new reality and expend my energy on things that would make a difference, things that would help her and all of us as a family; things that I could choose to act upon; things I could control. 

The “how” and “what” took a front seat. We put hard work into all her therapies, into maintaining normalcy for my older daughter, which meant building lots of fun and play into our lives.

It meant doing all that was in my control to help Nava be the best she could be.

It meant encouraging her toward independence every step of the way; having high but realistic expectations and working toward that balance; fostering a strong sense of pride in herself.

It meant focusing on her most incredible sunny disposition and “shepping nachas” (Yiddish for reaping joy) from her growth and advancements.

Fast forward years later: Nava became critically ill. I was attuned to my old M.O. and how far I had come. My mind did (naturally) go the existential “why.”

I thought, “Why is this happening? She doesn’t deserve this now.”

There was a concrete medical explanation: She was the unfortunate one-in-a-million statistic they always warn us about for possible complications of medicines. But I did not stay with that for too long. I would not allow myself to get sucked into that deep black hole again. Too much was at stake, and I needed every ounce of mental energy to deal with that crisis.

Those thoughts came and went periodically. And that was the key—I let them in and gently escorted them out, knowing full well they would not serve me well. I would not allow them to take root in my turf.    

I dealt with the “how” and “what” during Nava’s year-long hospitalization. I focused on coping well and keeping myself strong so I could be by her side, fighting alongside for her survival and recovery.

Here is what I’ve learned about dealing with the “how” and “what” of a situation:

  • This is where our energy needs to flow. What we focus on is where our energy goes.
  • “Hows” and “whats” lend themselves towards action steps. We can have an impact here and make a difference.
  • We have some control.
  • We have choices in how we handle something and in what we do.
  • We can provide ourselves with some peace by allowing the “unanswerables” in and then gently letting them go.

How” and “What” Questions:

  • How can I take what I have and make it as good as possible?
  • What goals can I work toward?
  • What can I learn from this? What lessons am I receiving? (Sometimes we don’t know this until years later, until we can look back on it—hindsight is wonderful.)
  • How can I make lemonade out of lemons?
  • How can I utilize this for a greater purpose?
  • What can I do to improve the quality of my/our life?
  • How can I integrate this into my life and carry on well, in spite of it?
  • How can I create balance?
  • How can I bring joy into my life?
  • What am I grateful for?

This last one should probably be up there as number one, but it can be hard to get to this place when we’re in the throes of a particular difficulty. Sometimes it takes time.

I have come a long way in accepting that there are no answers to the big “whys” of adversities and suffering.  If we can accept this, we can feel so much more at peace with what is, despite what we don’t know.

Photo by Alyssa M. Miller

Avatar of Harriet Cabelly

About Harriet Cabelly

Harriet Cabelly is a social worker and life coach emphasizing living life to its fullest and creating a good life out of (or despite) adversity. Read more about her at Rebuild Your Life Coach and read the latest from her blog.

Announcement: Wish you could change your past? Learn to let go and create a life you love with the Tiny Buddha course!
  • Angel Evelyn

    Great article* The truth is we waste a lot of our lives wondering what if or why? I used to wonder about my relationships? what if he does this? what if he does that? one day it dawned on me that I had wasted a lot of my life wondering what other people were doing or what if this happens? I wasn’t living in reality..in the present moment. I was continuously projecting into a unknown future. I was living in what if? or why? the truth is we don’t know and when we are truly wise we really don’t know much because we question our thoughts. Wisdom isn’t knowledge. We can never know what someone else is thinking, why things are happening…and the truth is I’m happy not to know. Knowing or thinking I needed to know stressed me out. Thinking we need to know everything is nowhere going nowhere* 

  • Brenda

    Thank you for your article. This was one of those things that came right when I needed it. How grateful I am for your insight. I have been having my own pity party for a couple of years now, and have been looking for ways to get out of it. I also appreciate Angel’s comments. I feel as though I have been struck by lightening after reading this and am so excited to move on and quit wasting so much time with the “how’s” and “why’s.”

  • Guest

    Thank you Harriet. This is very helpful for me today. I was also diagnosed with a neurological condition a little over a year and a half ago and have had great problems coping, especially recently, when I finally accepted that the 2nd treatment I’ve tried isn’t working. I think I keep trying to figure out if there is something wrong with my personality or how I live which is causing progression instead of focusing on moving forward and what I CAN do to be happier. 

    I appreciate you sharing your struggle and hope that I can also come to terms with all of this. 

  • http://www.rebuildyourlifecoach.com/ Harriet Cabelly

    Hi Angel Evelyn,
    Thank you for sharing your perspective.  The ‘what ifs’ are certainly drainers on the soul and as you say waste precious energy in the unknowns instead of living the known, our current reality.  We must live the fullest with what we have and what we know.  It is only then that we can create a healthy and hopefully good present for ourselves, ie. a good life.  So glad this resonated for you.

  • http://www.rebuildyourlifecoach.com/ Harriet Cabelly

    Hi Guest,
    Thank you for sharing a bit of your story here.  Be patient with yourself.  You will move forward and you will do things to create happiness for yourself because you’ve already stated your interest right here.  That is your intention and it will be. 

  • http://www.rebuildyourlifecoach.com/ Harriet Cabelly

    Hi Brenda,
    Glad this came at a good time for you. This all takes time and I don’t like to use the cliche word ‘process’ but it is a process.  Sounds like you’re ready to move on and so you shall.

  • Richard

    This reminded me  of  a quote Wayne Dyer loves to include in his writings.  The truth in the morning  of our life is a lie in the afternoon.  I believed that good things happen good people. So when life started to go bad I felt bad. 
    “The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.” (Gibran, The Prophet) 
    With a faulty belief system like good things happen to good people, we compound our experiences in life by interpreting them harshly and self deprecating.
    I have found the best thing to do is continue to look at the things I am grateful for.  And sometimes I force myself to smile.  I fake it until I make it.

  • http://www.sweetandsage.com Sage

    I just want to thank you for sharing the fact that you saw a therapist. I’ve been in therapy or worked with counselors many times in my life, and I’ve had amazing breakthroughs with them. It makes me sad when people are struggling but they refuse to see therapists. Everyone should have someone to talk to when they are hurting.

  • http://www.vidyasury.com/ Vidya Sury

    I am moved to tears, Harriet. What a touching post. Obviously you are a wonderful parent and my heart sings at how you shared your learning.  I am definitely saving the How and What questions. I know how grief can blind us to reality, but when the clouds clear, (they do!), we are shown a new perspective that helps us understand the whys and makes us think about the why nots. I also like how you highlighted how we tend to look within for ways to blame ourselves or find fault with what we might have done to deserve what happened.

    It only takes a shift in attitude to be our own healers and bring us peace. This is a fabulous post, as always, from you, Harriet. And it is great to see you back! Love and hugs, Vidya.

  • http://www.rebuildyourlifecoach.com/ Harriet Cabelly

    Hi Richard,
    I love those 2 quotes.  You are so right – so much of how we handle things is based on our belief system.  There are those who can look at bad things happening to them and say, ‘why not me’.  I was not one of those people obviously. 
    Being able to be grateful for what you have is a powerful way of living and the best antidote to depression; also a great coping tool. 
    And yes, sometimes we must put the action before the feeling.  So we smile even though we may not feel like it; action before feeling can produce the feeling we want to attain. 
    Best to you.  

  • http://www.rebuildyourlifecoach.com/ Harriet Cabelly

    Hi Vidya,
    So great to ‘see’ you here.  I love how you say, ‘it only takes a shift in attitude….’ That is so true.  It’s all about attitude and how we respond.  There’s that famous quote that says 90% is attitude and 10% is circumstance. 
    Thank you for your wonderful support.

  • http://www.rebuildyourlifecoach.com/ Harriet Cabelly

    Hi Sage,
    Thanks for highlighting the importance of seeing a therapist.  I know many people knock it and for reasons of pride and such, refuse to see someone. Many think it’s hokey and touchy-feely.  But like you say, it is so beneficial to have an objective person be there to listen and help you sort things out when the going just gets too difficult to manage and the problems/issues interfere in one’s functioning abilities.     

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=219400089 Jennifer L Purvis

    I really enjoyed this post as it wasn’t the usual, think positive and all good things will come to you. I became very ill after a succession of surgeries needed to correct the initial surgery that went wrong. I was given antibiotics I was labeled allergic to — I had the WHY. But I felt this need to just pound myself to pieces because obviously *I* had to be the real why.

    Then I learned that recovery (and life in general) is all about the Hows. How I CHOOSE to deal with today, tomorrow and every other choice put towards me.

    It changed my life.

    That control I had been so desperately seeking had been in my hands the entire time. I just was too self-centred to notice it.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/David-Stevens/100001219009939 David Stevens

    We can go quite mad asking “why”, Harriet. It’s a good word as an icebreaker to further questioning….. Use an intro to more searching words. There are also many things that we will never know the answer to…..
    be good to yourself
    David

  • Irlondon

    Thank you for your article, which touched me deeply. 

    After my Dad became a paraplegic at age 65 because of a rare and little-understood vascular problem in his spine,he  told me that instead of asking ‘Why me?” he asked ‘Why not me?”.  It took a lot of time and work for him to get to that point (and it was not a total transformation of his anger and sadness about his illness), but it sustained him (and his family) through 20 more years of his life, the vast majority of which were full of joy, productivity, and love.  I was amazed at his attitude; it is not a philosophy that comes naturally to me at all.  It opened the door for me to begin to think a bit differently about the cataclysmic life events that happen to us with no ‘obvious’ reason or logic…and is one of the many intangible treasures he left me.

    My blessings to you, your daughter, and your family.  The ‘nachas’ you get from her comes through loud and clear.

  • guest

    One of the best blogs I have ever read. It sums up how I dealt with being diagnosed with a neurological disease. I remember to be gracious for each day and recognize the gifts given. Making Lemon Meringue pies out of lemons are my specialty. I hope your daughter is doing well today.

  • http://www.rebuildyourlifecoach.com/ Harriet Cabelly

    Hi Guest,
    Love that lemon meringue pie variation of lemonade out of lemons!
    Gratitude is a powerful tool.  Sounds like you are able to live your blessings.
    All the best to you. Yes, my daughter is doing great, thank you.

  • http://www.rebuildyourlifecoach.com/ Harriet Cabelly

    Hi Irlondon,
    Wow, your dad clearly gave you a gift; and you have recognized it as an ‘intangible treasure’ – that is wonderful.  Those are the best gifts – the ones that guide as towards living well (and better)- our Life Lessons. 
    You are so right – it takes time to get to a point of acceptance and an ability to transform a negative into something manageable, and in your case (your dad’s) amazingly positive.   
    So much of life happens for no ‘obvious’ reason.  That’s the struggle – to be able to accept and live on well without understanding the ‘whys’.
    I am touched by your words.  Thank you.

  • http://www.rebuildyourlifecoach.com/ Harriet Cabelly

    Hi David,
    Nice to ‘see’ you here.  We can go ‘mad’ asking why.  I probably did go a bit mad that year of my intense grief work.  But I came through it intact and that is the key – to go through and come through a bit better off. The richness of life is there and I recognize it and live it everyday with appreciation. 
    Thanks for your interesting comment.

  • http://www.rebuildyourlifecoach.com/ Harriet Cabelly

    Hi Jennifer,
    Wow, you’ve really had some great insights that have translated into living better, so it seems.  It’s all about Choice and how and what we choose to respond and focus.  Viktor Frankl has some great quotes on this concept – check out his book, Mans’ Search for Meaning (if you haven’t already read it, please do so).
    All the best to you.

  • Jshanthkumar

    feels better

  • Likaflower

    Harriet, Thank You for your words and truth. I have been stumbling over the ques “Why” now for far too long. My daughter is my gem. She has Down Syndome and was also born with a whole smack dab in the middle of her heart that required heart surgery. So, I tucked my pain away and  went on auto-pilot to get our family through and have been there every since. I know an intimate moment with my journal is LONG overdo and  I am releasing the ques of “Why” to the All Knowing. Your post has added fuel to my resolve to focus on who she is  and not who she isn’t. Thank You for your insight and thank you for your wisdom.

  • http://www.rebuildyourlifecoach.com/ Harriet Cabelly

    Hi Likaflower,
    It’s pretty powerful to focus on all that she is as opposed to all she is not.  It’s like the idea of focusing and being grateful for all that we have instead of on what we don’t have.  Your daughter is so much more than her disability limits. 
    BTW have you seen the website http://www.kellehampton.com .  Read through it all – it is a gem.  You’ll see why.
    Sometimes we have to go on auto-pilot in order to function.  Since you’re aware of it now, it means you’re ready to shift to mindful-pilot.
    Thank you for sharing and for your kind words.  

  • ChiropracticCoaches

    Thank you for the insight. Instead of asking, we should asked ourselves how to deal with our problems much better. Is there any problems that you couldn’t even start asking yourself how to deal with it?

  • ChiropracticConsultant

    Thank you for the insight. Instead of asking, we should asked ourselves how to deal with our problems much better. Is there any problems that you couldn’t even start asking yourself how to deal with it?

  • Astha Kaushik

    just what i wanted to hear today….coping with a really bad phase of uncertainty and trying to find a reason for everything happened in past n thinking what will happen next…ur comment reminded me of a famous song….que sera sera….whatever will be will be….the future is not ours to see..que sera sera :)