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Skip The Platitudes

twigI was driving my then 16-year-old son home from the hospital where he had spent three days after being diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. Thinking about all the kids at the hospital who do not survive their particular illnesses, I said to Galen, "well, it could be worse." His simple response taught me an important lesson about platitudes " those little phrases we throw out in a usually vain attempt to make someone (maybe ourselves?) feel better " Galen simply said, "it could have been better."

Comparing heartaches is not useful. The trial faced by this person is real and painful and unwanted. Suggesting that a person be grateful for a particular illness or event because there are so many worse things is not at all helpful. If what we want to do is support someone facing a hard time, we need to support the person in the place s/he is, and not try to put them on some imaginary scale of terrible events that simply has the effect of minimizing their experiences.

Platitudes are common, often automatic, responses to loss, disease, death and other traumatic events. Unfortunately, they rarely have the intended effect of making another feel better. Did I really imagine that my teenage son was going to suddenly be grateful that he had to inject himself several times a day with insulin and check his blood sugar regularly, all of which hurts?! Did I really think he would turn to me with a suddenly bright face, saying how smart I was to point out that other kids had it worse? I should have known better.

"It could have been worse" is only one of many platitudes that are commonly used with the intention of providing comfort. " She is in a better place" may be comforting to the one saying it, but I wonder how many friendships have been lost from those simple words? "I don't want her in a better place " I want her here with me and why don't you understand that" or "so am I being selfish because I do not want her in a better place" are typical unspoken responses to that particular platitude. "S/he is in a better place" is not something to say if what we want is to convey understanding and support for a broken heart.

How about "it was meant to be" or "it was God's plan/will"? Can you hear the responses in people's heads: "Who exactly meant for this terrible thing to happen?! What kind of God/Supreme Being means for terrible things to befall the innocent??!!!" It is not fair to blame fate or God for tragedy because really, we do not know why bad things happen. Trying to impose our beliefs about the purpose of sorrows is not respectful to others, who might have a very different system of beliefs about such matters.

I was just 24 when my mother died from breast cancer and about the only thing I remember from the whole funeral trauma was someone telling me that I should think about all the character I was building. What I should have done was punch that person! Well, not really but I sure felt like it and while I remember the words clearly and how I felt, I do not remember who offered that particularly upsetting platitude to me. I am certain the intention of the person was to be supportive but pointing out the character building benefits of a 45 year old mother's death was not the thing to say to a heartbroken young woman.

It is quite true that time helps to soften grief and sorrow, but a reminder of that is not helpful to those who must live with the pain and heartache of today. Telling someone that s/he will feel better in a few months effectively ignores how that person is feeling now, and that is not comforting. We cannot fast forward to a less painful date on the calendar and so the role of time is really not something that needs to be brought up; instead, focus on the experiences of that person in the here and now.

Although many of us share similar experiences, the reality is that none of us ever know how another person feels and yet this is a very well worn platitude. "I know just how you feel" is not only disrespectful, but it is not truthful because we can only know how WE felt in a similar situation " we cannot know how another feels. Better to allow the other person to share what this experience is like for him/her rather than assuming that you know.

A platitude is something we throw out with good intention, but they typically reflect our beliefs and values rather than the person we want to help. We often use platitudes when we do not know what to say " they just seem to spill right out of our mouths during difficult times. Unfortunately, rather than being helpful platitudes come across as trite at best and are often very hurtful.

I am often asked what is helpful to say when someone has experienced a loss, death or other traumatic event. The very first thing to keep in mind is that you cannot fix this problem " nothing that you say or do can bring a loved one back to life or cure cancer. Recognizing the reality that there is nothing to fix frees us from trying to say just the right thing to make the situation all better.

What people typically want and need in hard times is support and caring. It is appropriate to express to the person how very sorry you are that this is happening to him/her. Often people want to talk about their experiences, and inviting that through open-ended questions can be very helpful. For example, asking someone, "how are you doing?" is a closed-ended question that is likely to get you a one or two word response but asking, "what has this experience been like for you?" offers an invitation to talk that is usually much appreciated.

The initial event, such as a diagnosis or death, typically brings much support that fades quickly as people resume their normal lives. People going through hard times appreciate it when support continues past the crisis, as they are learning to live day to day with the grief and sorrow. Sending a card, an email or just calling to talk in the weeks and months that follow conveys compassionate caring that extends past the initial crisis.

Each of us is different and finds support and comfort in different ways. The compassionate helper needs to be mindful that true support reflects the needs of the one facing the challenge and not the helper. Platitudes reflect a "one size fits all" approach to caring and are best avoided. Our job as helpers is to be sensitive to what things help the person to cope, and then supporting those things. We cannot fix most of life's biggest trials, but we can offer compassionate companionship as people we care about walk the dark and difficult paths of life.

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