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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How does hearing platitudes make you feel?

Do you give platitude people a pass or do you share how you really feel about hearing them?

What platitude bugs you the most?

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!

22 thoughts to “The Unspoken Half of Those Platitudes”

  1. I am not a religious person, so references to God or Jesus have no resonance with me.
    When my infant granddaughter Rachel died unexpectedly at 13 months old I had a rough time keeping myself together and trying to support my daughter as she and her marriage fell apart.
    I took some time off work to heal. Shortly after I returned to work I had a very vivid dream that I was holding Rachel in my arms. It brought back everything as if it was yesterday.
    At work that day my boss, who was a very staunch Catholic came in to my office and asked how I was doing. I explained about the dream. Her reply was “Well, she’s in Jesus’ arms now” (so stop feeling so bad)
    I hated that woman at that moment. I didn’t want her in Jesus’ arms- I wanted her in mine.

    1. Marilyn, I am sorry your infant granddaughter died, and that platitude said to you was insensitive. Of course, you wanted her in your arms. Your words – “I hated that woman at that moment,” say it all about how her words made you feel. Thank you for sharing your powerful insights.

    2. Most people, when confronted with the struggles of others, often don’t know what to say or how to say it, as they know little of others situations. but still want to express that they acknowledged your emotional situation. Which is all we need sometimes. These types of comments are that desire, expressed. Not everyone is equipped to deal with others’ emotional needs or problems, and shouldn’t be expected to. Improper advice or responses when someone is emotionally distraught could very will make things worse.

  2. When our firstborn died the emergency room doctor said “you can have more children.” (so stop feeling so bad)
    My own doctor at the time said “Since it had to happen, it’s better that it happened now.”
    ( so stop feeling so bad.) I think the unspoken message here was more like (so you should feel grateful.)
    When my neighbor found out about my breast cancer she said “my aunt had that, she’s fine so you will be too.” (so stop feeling so bad)
    I now give people a pass because I know there are times when people don’t know what to say or are so shocked they blurt out the first thing that comes into their minds. We are all human, we all make mistakes and I think we all make inappropriate comments at times even though we mean well.
    The best thing, my youngest daughter (who lives far from me ) when she found out I had been diagnosed with cancer said “ Mom I want to be there for you and support you,” and she was and she did. Her and my grand flew out before my operation and stayed for a week after it.

    1. Laura, Oh my, that was a horrible thing for the ER doctor to say. And your own doctor’s words weren’t much better. People like to think they are fixing our pain, but in fact, pain doesn’t need fixing necessarily, it needs witnessing. I’m glad your daughter came through for you after you diagnosis. Thank you for adding to this discussion.

  3. I try to not use them but we can still say something that someone finds offensive. I just do not say anything rather than say the wrong thing since i have seen so many remarks on this subject, maybe that is wrong but with everything offending someone I think that is best. This has only been in the last few years and when I was diagnosed I did not think in those terms , i knew friends were just trying to make me feel better and I knew that & I really appreciated that. I had a mastectomy without reconstruction, chemo and radiation. I now have lymphedema, heart problems and no sex drive, but I am alive and feeling good. Several of my friends were not so lucky and did not survive. No cancer was not a good thing but everyone has some problem and that is mine. My son at 49 had to have his colon removed because of UC and he is thankful to be alive. Everyone is different and I have always had a strong faith so that helps me. NO I do not think God gave me cancer but my faith helps me deal with what the after effects are. Our saying in our home is “IT IS WHAT IT IS.

    1. Sandy, Being afraid to say the wrong thing doesn’t mean you should say nothing at all; that’s how I feel anyway. And there’s nothing wrong with saying, I don’t know what to say. Sometimes just showing up and saying, I’m sorry. Or I’m here for you no matter what is more than enough. Again, it’s that witnessing thing rather than fixing. You’re right, everyone has something they’re dealing with, and sometimes we use that phrase around here too. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this.

  4. When we found out you had breast cancer, a friend of a friend who was a hair dresser said to me something like, “Oh so many of my clients had breast cancer and wear wigs and they’re all fine now. Your mom will be fine. She will.” And it actually did make me feel a little better! Even though of course that was not the best thing for her to say.

    A friend of mine lost her dog to cancer recently. It was a grade II cancer and when we found out the dog was sick another friend said something like “Oh, it’s only grade II so not so bad.” I thought that was a horrible thing to say. The dog lived only 3 more months.

    1. Lindsay, I suppose the part where the hairdresser said lots of my clients had breast cancer and they’re all fine, so your mom will be too wasn’t the best thing to say. But it made you feel better, so… The comment about the dog’s cancer was insensitive. People with stage 1 or 2 cancer hear that kind of thing a lot. Marginalizing is never helpful. Thank you for sharing some thoughts on platitudes.

  5. Hi Nancy,

    The There’s a reason for everything platitude annoys me most. I bristle when I hear it. Or even worse: God cannot give you more than you can handle. What an insensitive one, as if God caused the cancer in the first place to make you an improved version of yourself. What a cop-out. At the same time, I have an understanding of why some people say these things — sometimes it’s just to try to make the person with cancer feel better, albeit misguided.

    Great thought-provoking post.

    1. Beth, I am sorta weary of that free pass just because people mean well. I think it depends on who is saying it, where you are at that moment, what sort of relationship you have with the person and just how bad the comment (platitude) made you feel. I don’t see anything wrong with saying something like, you know that comment isn’t really helpful right now, but thank you for caring about me. It’s all in the delivery. Sometimes your feelings have to matter more. Temporarily anyway. That’s how I feel anyway. Of course, sometimes it’s easier to just let it slide too, not worth the effort. Thank you for chiming in on this topic, Beth.

  6. 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.

    1. 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.

  7. 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.”

    1. 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.

  8. 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…

  9. 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.”

  10. 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.

    1. 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.

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