How should we respond when well-meaning people say things that injure us? Has anyone ever delivered any of these platitudes, clichés or other expressions meant to comfort you as a griever?
“I know how you feel.”
“Time heals all wounds.”
“God must have needed her more.”
“You can have more children.”
“She’s in a better place.”
“Everything happens for a reason.”
“At least he isn’t suffering anymore.”
“It’s time for you to get on with your life.”
The list goes on and on.
I admit that in my 20s, I repeated a few of these. I was ignorant. My deepest loss had been the death of my dog. I even tried to relate to a friend who lost her brother by mentioning this death. While pain is pain, my remark was not helpful or thoroughly considered before uttered.
Part of the list above came from an introductory workshop put on by the Stephen Ministry, a grief and loss ministry that pairs trained lay people who meet weekly to provide one-on-one support to people suffering from grief, job loss, disability, infertility and other hurtful circumstances. More than 13,000 congregations across all 50 states use the ministry.
I sat in a room of about 50 people assembled in a church gymnasium and participated in adding to the list. An emotionally intelligent group, we all understood these expressions weren’t helpful.
“She lived a good, long life.”
“You’re still young. You can get married again.”
“It was his time.”
I think the most hurtful expression is “It was God’s will.” I suggested that any platitude that puts blame on God is the most hurtful thing to say because of the possibility that it will put a wedge between the griever and God at a time that God and prayer can be the only source of comfort. It also is a simplistic way to explain the complex spiritual nature of death, loss, and God’s role and thus leaves an inaccurate impression.
So what do we do when faced with these platitudes?
When grief is fresh and raw, it is hard to consider that the person meant no harm but rather wanted to comfort the griever. I admit, however, that even years after the deaths of my parents, I react passionately to similar clichés, especially after I’ve informed the person and they reiterate or defend the expression. In the case I’m thinking of, I decided never to speak with this person about the topic again. And in some cases, that’s what we need to do.
In other cases, we can educate.
A funeral home possibly isn’t the best setting for such a conversation, though I would not rule it out. If someone said something that hurt you, go to them or call and explain why it hurt.
Many of these expressions tend to gloss over the very real loss that a person feels. Yes, I know Dad is in heaven and out of pain, but I am in pain, and that’s the point. Yes, I know I can have more children or get married again, but one being cannot replace another. You might suggest a way you’d like to have been offered sympathy.
There’s also literature that may be gifted to individuals. The Stephen Ministry offers one such book, Don’t Sing Songs to a Heavy Heart, by founder Kenneth C. Haugk. I love the title of this book because it encapsulates what platitudes tend to do and insinuates that acknowledging the pain instead of trying to talk it away is what grievers need.
We also can be part of the conversation in “the before” – before the illness or death. Help educate young people what is appropriate. Share articles that educate and offer alternatives. Prepare simple, short responses for the next time – or simply decide to shake it off.
And of course, we should educate ourselves.
I was touched recently by a person who provides a service to me. Another client had lost her husband. She was going to see her for the first time since the death, and she wanted my advice about what to say. In fact, she wasn’t sure she should say anything.
I told her the most important thing for her to do was to acknowledge this woman’s loss. I recommended she start with the standard “I’m sorry for your loss,” and allow the woman to talk about it or not, to cry or not.
I’m encouraged. I hope the societal climate will shift and spark more and more conversations like this as we all learn how to relate to one another with thoughtful compassion.
What would you add to the list of platitudes, clichés and expressions? What would you like to hear instead as an offer of sympathy?
Copyright © 2019 by Toni Lepeska. All rights reserved. www.tonilepeska.com