Maybe Understanding “Why” Isn’t the Goal: Coping with Loss

Maybe some of these sentences will sound familiar to you:

  • “Why is this happening?”
  • “What did I do?”
  • “How did I get here?”
  • “If I could only understand how it happened, then . . .”

These are sentences that I often hear when I am in session with someone.  They are about our tendency to want to understand, to try to get our questions answered, to try to make sense in the face of painful challenges.  I hear these questions most commonly with clients who are facing loss or coping with bad news–but they pop up in lots of sessions.

I have noticed something about these questions–about the powerful search for an answer–they can often take up a lot of someone’s emotional energy.  The search to understand painful events can become almost an obsession.  Don’t get me wrong, I think that it is important to understand how our choices affect where we are today.  But I also think that there are things that just happen to us.  I don’t think that there is anything that a child of seven (or an adult of 27) can do to avoid developing Type I diabetes–it is programmed into their cells.   I don’t think that there is anything parents can do to prevent a miscarriage–that is the outcome of up to 20 percent of early pregnancies.  While all of us can benefit from healthy eating and regular exercise, I don’t think that a healthy lifestyle means that you get a free pass to skip cancer.  I know for certain that you can’t choose to live free of natural disasters–nowhere is completely exempt from fire, flood, tornado, earthquake or hurricane.  As I talked about in several earlier posts on pain and the “random bad stuff,” each of us faces challenges that aren’t necessarily explained by our actions and choices–they are just part of life.

So if the sentences at the top of this post are an echo of questions that race around your brain, I have a few more questions for you.

  • How much of your waking time and energy go into trying to come up with answers to the questions that essentially boil down to “Why me?”
  • Do you find yourself revisiting the questions of “how” and “why” in conversations with your family and friends?
  • Is it hard for you to stop asking the questions?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, then I have one more question for you:

  • Would knowing the answers to your questions actually free you from any of your hurt, pain, frustration, or grief?

That last question is one that I ask often in therapy.  I think that, sometimes, we use the questions as a buffer so that we don’t have to actually feel the intensity of our loss.  We get convinced, on some level, that if we can just understand what happened, we can change it.  That’s not true, but we talk ourselves into it.

For this week, I’m asking you to think more about the questions you ask.  Could they be interfering with your ability to move forward?  Next week, we’ll talk more about how to assess your questions and options for coping.


Image Credit: Photo by BuzzFarmers via Flickr

6 thoughts on “Maybe Understanding “Why” Isn’t the Goal: Coping with Loss

  1. Hi Ann – Love your post in thinking about the merits of “hwy?” as many people ask this ….I think that it is useful to explore one’s feelings about one’s experiences, including chronic illness, and have some sort of personal meaning develop over time. M/b the why can be answered in that way..thanks, Kathy

  2. Dear Ann,
    This is a great post. And I’ll keep that last question in mind for future sessions of my own. My sense is that sometimes people want to know why in hopes that they’ll come up with an answer that helps them feel less guilty. But as you say, so many bad things happen for no good reason that we can see. Stuff happens, and knowing why doesn’t change that.
    Thanks for your sensitive thoughts.

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