When Painful Things Happen and You Can’t Stop Obsessing Over 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 Nava’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  WHY 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 you may 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 once 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, and fostering a strong sense of pride in herself.

It meant focusing on her  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.    

Instead, 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:

  • What we focus on is where our energy goes, and we need our energy for the things we can control.
  • “Hows” and “whats” lend themselves towards action steps. We can have an impact here and make a difference.
  • 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

About Harriet Cabelly

Harriet Cabelly, LCSW is a therapist specializing in grief, loss. and critical life situations. She's also a speaker, author, and group leader. Harriet works from the lens of positive psychology and existentialism. She has a private practice seeing clients both in-person and virtually. She is passionate about helping people cope and grow through critical life-changing circumstances. Harriet is the author of Living Well Despite Adversity: Inspiration for Finding Renewed Meaning and Joy in Your Life. Visit her at rebuildlifenow.com.

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