The unspoken half of those platitudes actually says quite a lot and is likely not the intended message.
Do you ever wonder why platitudes are so darn annoying, hurtful even, to so many? People who offer them no doubt have good intentions. They are trying to make someone they care about feel better. Most of the time, we give platitude people a pass for that very reason.
So, why does hearing platitudes make some of us cringe, feel worse, hurt more or get angry?
Why instead of making us feel better, do the words often have the exact opposite effect?
I’ve written about this topic before. What Does Telling a Cancer Patient to Just Stay Positive Really Mean? and Let’s Stop Telling Cancer Patients How to Feel are two of my most-read posts. Many others have written about this too, so I know I am not the only one who has been, and will be again, annoyed by platitudes.
Recently, I read the book, It’s OK that You’re Not OK: Meeting Grief and Loss in a Culture that Doesn’t Understand, by Megan Devine. It’s a terrific book about grief. It might even be my favorite one. And yes, I read books about grief as often as I can. Does that make me weird? Maybe. That, among other things, I suppose.
Why do I like to read about grief?
Well, one reason is because, and as I’ve mentioned many times, the parallels between cancer and grief are really quite striking at times.
But back to those platitudes…
When my dad died, I couldn’t help but notice Things People Say at Funerals. I heard the usual things like, at least he lived a long life. At least he’s in a better place now. At least he isn’t suffering. And so on. People said these things to try to make me feel better, but I didn’t really feel comforted by such statements. At least statements really aren’t helpful.
In her book, (chapter 2), Devine talks about how the second, unspoken half of those platitude statements, diminishes your pain. Specifically she says this:
The problem is, there’s an implied second half of the sentence in all those familiar lines. That second half of the sentence unintentionally dismisses or diminishes your pain; it erases what is true now in favor of some alternative experience. That ghost-sentence tells you it’s not OK to feel how you feel.
Yes! I could not agree more. I love that ghost-sentence idea, don’t you?
To better understand why platitudes can be so grating, Devine suggests that readers fill in the second half of the sentence/platitude with the implied, hidden meaning – which basically is, stop feeling so bad.
She offers the examples below (p. 21), but you could pick many others as well; I added the last one as another example.
At least you had her/him for as long as you did – so stop feeling so bad.
He died doing something he loved – so stop feeling so bad.
You can always have another child (this one’s just damn cruel) – so stop feeling so bad.
They’re in a better place now – so stop feeling so bad.
We can apply this same ghost-sentence idea in Cancer Land.
I mean, how many times have you heard things like:
Everything happens for a reason. Again, it’s implied that perhaps you should – stop feeling so bad.
This will make you a stronger, better person (aargh!!) – so stop feeling so bad.
You’re strong enough to beat this thing – so stop feeling so bad.
It’s only hair – so stop feeling so bad.
Cancer will teach you who and what to appreciate in life – so stop feeling so bad.
You get my drift.
No wonder platitudes sometimes annoy and/or hurt so much, right?
So what are platitude people supposed to say or do?
My suggestion would simply be perhaps try to be a witness rather than a fixer.
Sometimes “just” witnessing is harder, but often it’s the kindest, most helpful and most meaningful gesture of all.