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The Unspoken Half of Those Platitudes

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.

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What the best thing someone has said or done for you when you were hurting?

The Unspoken half of the platitudes

Try finishing each phrase with, so stop feeling so bad, & see if you don’t cringe too!

Kaye

Wednesday 7th of April 2021

When my eldest brother died at 19, someone said to my mom, "At least you have other sons. (so stop feeling so bad) My parents had 4 other sons but that did not make the grief any less.

When I was diagnosed with breast cancer the first time, someone told me that another person had said to them, " If it was going to happen to anyone, it is a good thing it was Kaye. If anyone can handle it, she can." (So stop feeling so bad.) I was actually surprised that she thought that but I thought it was a hurtful comment.

Nancy

Thursday 8th of April 2021

Kaye, Oh my gosh, what a horrible thing for someone to say to your mom. "At least" statements are rarely helpful, but that one was just awful. And that comment made to you, that must've been surprising and yes, hurtful. People really need to stop and think before offering platitudes. That second half, "so stop feeling so bad", is too often the message heard. Thank you for sharing those tough memories.

Shirlee Smith

Tuesday 13th of August 2019

I think most people don't understand how such platitudes can be hurtful until they are in the very same position at sometime in their own life. I believe in the case of the death of a loved one, it can seem most cruel, but I think most people really are trying to help you not hurt so much because they care about you. It's the people who cannot understand your unexpected periods of mourning years later. I have had people ask me if the pain will ever go away, and I tell them no. The pain changes over time and isn't so intense, but it never quite goes away.

I have more problems with people who use God to badger other Christians when for example one Christian is overwhelmed by life, and the other Christian says something like God will help, pray, be strong in the Lord. It's like they have it together so much better than us mere mortals. Sometimes, you just want your friend to say, "I got your back."

Herve

Friday 26th of April 2019

Hi Nancy

Isn't there a third half, so to speak, along the lines of "I feel really uncomfortable about this situtation and I don't want to really look at this reality"?

wishing you all the best...

Pat Jones

Saturday 9th of June 2018

I don’t think it’s so much that the unspoken part is “so stop feeling so bad.”. I think it’s more along the line of “I feel so bad for you and there just aren’t words but I can’t just stand here and look at you, so I just said what I’ve heard before to try to let you know I’m here hoping to help in the only way I know how.”

Nancy

Sunday 10th of June 2018

Pat, You are right. Most people mean well. It's more that those who hear such platitudes often interpret them as, so stop feeling so bad. That was my point. Thank you for reading and taking time to comment.

Sherrin Christian

Saturday 9th of June 2018

Exactly! Well said!!

Sherrin Christian

Thursday 7th of June 2018

Our culture does not handle grief well. Rather than allowing time to go through the process, we act as though we can shorten the pain. It seems to me that these phrases are often as much for the person saying them as for the person they are speaking to..... 'If we think of it this way, we will both feel better faster.' We all learn these phrases when we are young as the 'proper way' to give comfort to others and also the way we should handle our own difficulties and grief. It doesn't comfort, it doesn't ease pain, it doesn't make life get 'back to normal any faster, but that's what we have learned to expect, rational or not. This is another significant change-point in our culture. These public conversations teach us all how to think deeper, do it differently. First Responders are taught to say, "I am very sorry for your loss." Perfect, honest, well said. But I wouldn't want to hear that from each person in a funeral line. Expressing our support is perfect IF we follow up with tangible support. I have found myself without words, aching to express comfort. What other phrases we can say that are real, honest, heartfelt...? Let's replace the platitudes and teach a better way to handle grief.

Nancy

Friday 8th of June 2018

Sherrin, I agree, our culture doesn't handle grief well. At all. I wonder if other cultures do a better job. I also find that often there's a perception that the faster you appear to be "over it", the better you are perceived to be handling things. So wrong on all levels. Same deal in Cancer Land. Maybe we are at a change point. I hope so. Thank you for sharing your insights on this important topic.

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