A psychiatrist weighs in on grief, faith, and the universe

By Meghan Overdeep
October 20, 2019
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Comforting Elderly Woman
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When it comes to tragic life-altering events, randomness, or the suggestion that bad things simply occur, is hard to fathom.

As psychiatrist Ralph Lewis, M.D. wrote in a recent blogpost for Psychology Today, our brains are wired to search for reasons. It's normal for people to ask questions like "Why did this happen?" and "Why me?" following a cancer diagnosis. Or the more philosophical "What did I do to deserve this?" and "Did I do something to cause it?"

Inevitably for many, faith becomes involved. They wonder if God is punishing them or if there is some higher plan. Some question what kind of God would allow something so cruel to happen to someone they love.

Though faith can provide comfort and strength through grief, Lewis suggests that the belief that life events are somehow intended is a double-edged sword. "It can be reassuring and comforting but can also lead to disillusionment, anguish, and feelings of abandonment by God, under conditions of cruel adversity," he wrote.

The fact is, bad things can happen to anyone at any time. There is no rhyme or reason to it. In scientific terms, the universe has no inherent purpose or design.

It's an exceptionally frustrating realization, but it doesn't have to be.

"The belief that life is random is unsettling, but it can be emotionally liberating," Lewis suggested. "Accepting randomness frees people from excessive self-blame, and in so doing also empowers them."

In his famous book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, Rabbi Harold Kushner says that the key to dealing with tragedy is dropping the belief that God is omnipotent.

"Let me suggest that the bad things that happen to us in our lives do not have a meaning when they happen to us… But we can redeem these tragedies from senselessness by imposing meaning on them," Rabbi Kushner writes. "A better question would be ‘Now that this has happened to me, what am I going to do about it?'"

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Lewis went on to write how his own experience with his wife's cancer confirmed his faith in people.

"People can and do care, even if the universe doesn't," he concluded.