For a Reason?

“Acceptance of the unacceptable is the greatest source of grace in this world.”
                        Eckhart Tolle

When Philip died, it didn’t occur to me to follow anyone’s prescription about how to grieve. The same when I was pregnant – I admit to buying “What to Expect When You’re Expecting” but I only read a couple chapters. I had already done some serious research on giving birth, including interviewing midwives and doctors. WTEWYE seemed to skim the surface. I wanted to understand the process of giving birth because I’d decided to have my babies at home. Death and birth need be aided by others, but the hospital doesn’t seem the place for either. I am grateful for the medical community, but it often interferes when it should simply facilitate. Death and birth are as intensely personal as they are widely universal. The question before me was, How do I want to do this?

Back then, I couldn’t exactly say why I wanted to home birth, except it felt right and authentic. Through giving birth I was learning to trust the body that I’d been waging war with for years. I was sad and moody even as a kid and I took it out on my body. As if my body was the problem. Bodies are not the problem. Bodies are tools – while we are in them, they are expressions of life. They are the receptors through which we feel and experience. But to blame my body for what I was feeling was akin to blaming my pen for my inability to write when it ran out of ink.

I grew up in rage and depression at what I couldn’t articulate but now understand was a lack of love and compassion. And what can a child do with rage and depression? Certainly not reason about it. My particular way was to drink. Which I started to do when I was 11. Pot and pills followed soon after, then bulimia in my early 20s. All in a rage against my body because it was making me feel. And when getting high didn’t work, I tried a serious but flawed attempt to kill myself. That I didn’t succeed was not a moment of revelation. It was a defeat because I knew I wouldn’t try it again – I wasn’t about to become a joke, someone whose version of a cry for help was inventing new and futile ways to kill herself. I failed. I was embarrassed and beaten.

So I went to therapy, stopped drinking. Eventually tried to deal with the bulimia, something that proved a far harder challenge than drugs and alcohol. I could grasp the concept of not taking the first drink. What was the formula for an eating disorder? Don’t take the first compulsive bite? Exactly which one was that? Sometimes, in my confusion, I’d opt for eliminating all all bites and I’d go days without eating.

But the body, restored to its rightful place, is a point of power. It’s where we access the richness of our inner life. It’s where we learn what true connection means and how it goes beyond the point of physical. Philip did not start as a body – he started as a longing. I wanted a child and so was graced with him. His birth was a continuation of the relationship I’d begun to form with him when I recognized that I wanted him. And grievous as his death is, we are still in relationship. It is hampered only by my inability to get my body out of my way.

To go to a hospital to give birth would be to give away the inherent power of my body. Women have been taught that we can’t trust our bodies, that our bodies cannot function as they are meant to. That somehow our prodding, probing and technology know better than we, ourselves, can know. That the pain of childbirth has no value and that we are unable to bear what women have borne always. We have been separated from our natural functions.

Like menstruating. There came a point as a young woman where I began to wonder where women’s disgust of their periods came from. Fertility is a power. Much as I wasn’t sure I wanted to have children, the idea that I had the power to do so made me feel sorry for men and what they would never know. My body could give life. I was part of the mystery. And much as I spent decades wishing I was dead, which really meant I wished I could stop feeling the terrible things I felt, some part of me recognized the sanctity of being able to give birth.

In the spirit of beginning to respect what my body could do, I stopped using “sanitary” napkins  – was my blood dirty? I bought cloth menstrual pads which I washed myself, watching the blood run over my hands as I rinsed my cloths before putting them in my “moon bowl,” where they sat until I washed them. I loved having my period. It was the mark of my fertility, and it is through that fertility that I came to know the two who I love best in this world.

And birth control. In my early twenties, I briefly went on the pill. Like everyone else I knew, I wanted the freedom to fuck. But something felt wrong about manipulating my cycle so I went off it.  Any method of birth control that I could use involved pills, diaphragms, iuds – all too invasive. I didn’t trust my understanding of my cycle enough to risk what was then called “the rhythm method” – so it was up to my partner and a condom.

When Philip died I ran to no manual about grief. By that point I’d stopped looking for something outside myself to tell me how to feel, to tell me what I was supposed to “do” to be happy. I was not in control of my feelings, but I could figure out how to handle them, and what I’d figured out and written about here countless times is that my credo became, Accept it, leave it, or change it. What else could ever be done, in any situation? The simple answer was also the most profound. Thing is, leaving or changing a situation might be difficult but felt doable. But “accept?” Years of hearing AA’s platitudes about acceptance made me bristle to even hear the word. I thought it mean lying in the road and letting a mac truck roll over me. And since all anything can ever mean is the meaning I give it, I couldn’t “accept” because I couldn’t understand.

What brought this all to mind is something I read on the internet, something, as one blogger wrote, “is making the rounds.” It had to do with the notion that everything happens for a reason, and the grieving author’s anger at people who spout that platitude. And I do understand that anger – what is such a trite expression in the face of losing a child? Is that supposed to comfort? What reason could anyone possibly come up with that would make this okay?

But then I got the idea that here we are again – angry, and doing with grief what the world does with everything: it’s us against them. The victims that have been forced to grief and the enemies who want to look away. It’s exhausting. This anger perpetuates grief, even as it feels good to have somewhere to direct our anger besides the seeming randomness of the universe.

We are all going to die. The timing is not up to us. Since death is as birth is, how do we live with it?

People are frightened. People spend lifetimes avoiding death even though they are always creeping toward it. People don’t know what to say when it comes anywhere near them. If someone says, “Everything happens for a reason” it simply means they don’t understand. It’s not you they’re trying to reason with, it’s themselves. So why would I insist people have to be what I want them to be, say what I want them to say? Yet how that stings when we feel we are being strangled by our grief, how that cuts us off when what we need is love and connection. There is no loneliness like the loneliness that comes from losing someone beloved.

Maybe it’s easy for me to look at this because I haven’t anyone who’s said anything like that to me. I’ve been told to “move on” which of course isn’t possible – but it was said in the spirit of kindness and that is what matters. The worst thing anyone said to me that first year was, “Uh, here we go” when I brought up Philip’s death in what I thought was the right context. I was both incredulous and angry for a long time after. Now, what matter? What people say tells you much about them, but nothing about you. People speak from fear, from anger, from ignorance –  we all do it and we don’t realize it. And when people continue to say hurtful things it is good and right to absent them from our lives. Sometimes we can’t, and so we have to draw a line in their condition. But sometimes we don’t, because sometimes we just want someone to target.

Last week I was alone in my office. In walked a client to pick up some paperwork. Noticing the picture of Philip on my desk, he asked with a smile, “Is that your son?” It is, said. And then I told him he died. “I am so sorry,” he answered; and he stayed and talked with me for a while. He listened to what I had to say. He has children of his own, and at one point his eyes teared up. That’s what we want, isn’t it? People to let us speak of the unspeakable, to be unafraid to hear what we’re saying.

Whether or not you think everything happens for a reason – the point is everything that happens, happens. It’s not about reason, but about meaning. Searching for a reason perpetuates grief because there is no satisfactory reason. The only meaning can come from what we make it to be. Loss is. To live in a body is to experience loss, in all its forms. No one escapes grief, no one escapes death. It’s not personal and it’s not done “to” us. It happens. And when it does, it changes us forever. We live with it every day, and we have choice how to do so. Not at first – depending on who we are, not for a long time. I lived underwater so long after Philip died, I don’t know how I didn’t suffocate. Searching for reasons would not have helped – the opposite, in fact, because asking why is an impossible question, designed to distract and thus prolong the worst aspects of our grief. There is never an acceptable answer. Death is its own reason.

Rather than looking for reasons, I ask myself how I can live with what is to me both a tragedy and a blessing. Philip is dead. I will one day join him, and when I do it will seem like life went by quickly. But since I’m here, how is it I want to be in the world? How do I walk with an open heart as I long to do? How do I stop hiding myself away because there’s something nagging at me that I won’t face – it’s an ancient darkness I carry and it’s going to take some strength to lay it down.

© 2015 Denise Smyth


17 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. cindy
    Nov 17, 2015 @ 08:29:15

    You are a gifted and wise Philosopher and an extraordinarily talented Writer. Brilliant. Thank you for sharing such a profound interpretation of your thoughts. You have strength beyond words and I admire you so very much. And, love, love, love, love You.


  2. Denise
    Nov 17, 2015 @ 08:47:16

    You are a light in my life, you know – more than a sister. Love, love, love you right back.


  3. anna whiston-donaldson
    Nov 17, 2015 @ 10:50:29

    Everything happens. Yes.


  4. Maria Danielle Casinelli
    Nov 17, 2015 @ 14:45:11

    Thanks for writing.

    Sent from my iPhone



  5. jmgoyder
    Nov 17, 2015 @ 18:46:33

    So much food for thought here, Denise. You have such a gift with words – especially words that most tend to avoid. I admire you and respect you. Thank you for your honesty and wisdom and for pulling me out of my comfort zone.


  6. pedro
    Nov 17, 2015 @ 19:40:21

    Pedro was here, and happy to stop in. Thanks for writing !


  7. pedro
    Nov 17, 2015 @ 19:57:22

    When I say happy ,Im mean I’m happy to know people like you want to share their thoughts and emotions. It helps to know that we all have our struggles no matter what they are. It just makes you want to reach out with a hug for everyone and say im here and I hear you.


  8. Rose
    Nov 19, 2015 @ 09:48:45


    Your writing is always so contagious, because it just stays there with us, making us think, go through thoughts that we might not want to go through. Yesterday, I was having a chat w/ my daughter, and in the middle of the conversation I told her that I was one day closer to death, because we walk towards death, and she responded in a very firm way, that I was not walking towards death. I had much to live, and life was full of things I still had to do. Then, she went on to give me some examples of things I should be looking to accomplish. Anyway, the point here is she is 11 and full of life, dreams, expectations. I’m 48 and life is not full of anything anymore. I’ve lost several people along my path that changed my perception about life. Death is part of life, it’s part of a cycle. Everything dies. Even the planet, solar system, etc will be all gone one day. Others will come, and will also go one day. But, that is far for us to see and understand. What I know, and what I understand now is that death is something I’m walking towards it, whether is going to happen in a second, or in several years I don’t know. But I guess that is the beauty of it. I will die one day, not understanding death. Accepting is the only choice I have, but I don’t understand it. Thanks for writing again, and for giving us a chance to review some concepts.




  9. Denise
    Nov 20, 2015 @ 10:16:29

    Philip tells me, “I’m trying to teach you what death isn’t.” So I also don’t understand what it is, but more and more I see that even though his body has died, his spirit not only remains, but manifests in material ways so that I can experience him. Death is not negative, much as we feel it that way. It’s, as you say, part of the cycle. We’d all do better to integrate it into our lives than to try to pretend it doesn’t exist.

    Good to hear from you, dear Rose. xoxoxoxo


  10. Vera Roy
    Nov 21, 2015 @ 16:14:54

    I came across your blog as I was searching the web for consolment and understanding of grief. Your insightful words have helped me to start to understand not only grief but my grief. You quoted Eckhart Tolle’s phrase on acceptance which has started to make its way through my thoughts and as you stated, following Tolle’s wisdom is often not apparent until one really starts to put it into the context of the present moment. I too lost my son in a similar tragedy only 6 weeks ago, and I struggle with the acceptance of the unacceptable but I must accept somehow but your words about how you will live on with this tragedy AND blessing have thrown confusion into my thoughts. I understand the heart wrenching tragedy but I am confused by what you see as a blessing. I would be grateful if you could explain so that I too can find the “meaning” to my loss.


    • Denise
      Nov 21, 2015 @ 18:52:11

      I am so, so sorry for your loss – I swear my heart breaks all over again every time I hear another parent has lost their child. There are no words – I wish I could make this better for you, for me, for all of us.

      Philip’s death has made me more tender toward life. His presence is palpable, and so I no longer see death as the end. Of the body, yes, but not of life. His dying has forced my heart open, and much as I hurt more I also love more. It’s easier for me to be alone because I feel loved. Crazy, isn’t it? He dies, and I feel loved. Except it’s not that simple, nor is it fast. It takes time – and don’t take any of this to mean I’m done grieving. Earlier today I fell into the hole; but at this point I recover more quickly. I hear him all the time; and when I’m at my worst, he reminds me that he’s right here. His death has taught me that what matters is love. There was a time I thought that sounded corny, but it’s true. I think before my children I didn’t understand what love really was – and I don’t pretend to understand fully now, just a little better.

      I can’t help but think these are all just words to you – it’s so new, you must be bloody raw and in shock. If you ever feel like emailing me, it’s I can’t change this for you, but I can and will listen if you need an ear.


  11. Vera Roy
    Nov 23, 2015 @ 00:18:32

    Denise, thank you for all your words : words of kind understanding, words of kind explanation, words of offering to listen. It is also a blessing that you are able to open your heart and share your pain with strangers so that we may somehow also understand our own pain. It must be so very hard to hear others stories and I am sorry that I made you hurt again, but know that what you write helped. The pain is still there but the understanding is greater. With much gratitude, Vera


  12. Denise
    Nov 23, 2015 @ 08:52:30

    Any time, Vera. There is no greater gift than to touch someone who’s suffering the most grievous loss. If you need me, I’m here. xoxo


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