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Why is it during times of crisis, tragedy and sudden loss do we, many of whom are highly educated, thoughtful, intelligent and wise people, resort to the systematic issuing of platitudes when we are trying to comfort those we love?  

Ask anyone who has had a significant loss or unexpected turn of events in their lives (you know, when "life throws them a curve ball").  Ask them what it was like for them to deal with the crisis and also have to listen to the mindless and mostly unhelpful platitudes from well meaning friends and loved ones.  The majority of them would tell you that their words were like salt being poured on an open infected wound.

My 20-year-old niece was killed in a car accident four years ago.  It was a senseless act of road rage inflicted by a young and weak boy who found his power and strength from behind the steering wheel of a 4000 pound vehicle.

As profoundly terrible and horrific as this time was for my sister, she had to (and still does) listen to the litany of platitudes foisted upon her by those who didn't know any better:

"God must have loved her so much, He wanted her in heaven with Him and the rest of the angels and saints."

"It must have been her time."

“God doesn’t give us anything we can’t handle.”

"Be grateful you had her for twenty years."

"Take comfort in knowing she's in a much happier place."

"You'll be seeing her soon enough."

"God must know how special you are because you are strong enough to handle this."

I can only assure you that NONE of this was helpful to her in any way.  She wanted to scream, slap them in the face, tell them to go to hell...but in the midst of the all-encompassing grief, she was too tired, too stunned to say anything except to mumble, "Thank you."

Ask anyone who's been diagnosed with a life-threatening illness and chances are they’ve heard something like this:

"This is just a bump in the road."

"You are strong and will get through this and have a wonderful story to tell your grandchildren."

"The Lord will heal you if you ask, but you must have the faith to believe or you won't be healed."

"It's God's will."

"Good things come in mysterious packages."

"You need to read 'The Secret'."

"I've heard that people who get cancer say it's the best gift they've ever received."

The worst is when people see other's bad news as their invitation to tell that person every horror story they ever heard, how they know someone who went through something similar or how their Aunt Matilda got the exact same cancer, may she rest in peace.

And then after the platitudes have been said and embedded solidly into the tired and frazzled minds of the wounded souls, the silence comes.  The phone doesn't ring, the emails stop, the texts stop texting.  The bereaved runs into someone in the grocery store who asks how they are doing (without mentioning of course the dreaded elephant in the room) and makes an exit quicker than the Road Runner.

Yes, we are well intentioned, no one questions that.  But if we are really honest with ourselves, we would also have to admit that we feel vulnerable being exposed to those who Fate/God/the Universe/Karma and the Great Unknown have targeted as their next victim to go down roads of unimaginable grief and fear.  

There is this underlying irrational belief that being around people whom the cruel and random finger of calamity has struck is somehow contagious like the Swine flu and we do everything to keep our distance.

To reassure ourselves, we make up explanations like, "They didn't exercise enough, they repressed so much it came out in the form of cancer, their diet sucked, they waited too long, it runs in their family, they didn't pray hard enough, they didn't put out enough positive intentions", on and on ad nauseum.

And sometimes we sputter out these inane platitudes because we honestly don't know what else to say.

It really doesn't need to be this complicated. Something like this will suffice for most:

"I'm so sorry.  This completely sucks. I'm here for you, whatever you need." And then mean it.

Yes, bring a meal, donate to the charity of their choice, pray, light candles.  But there is no more precious gift we can give than the gift and time of our presence and ability to sit, be present and listen with no compulsion to fix or solve.

That's it. We don't need to come up with the reasons why because no one knows the reasons why, no one.

Time is the ultimate healer of wounds (please please, whatever you do, don't say this to anyone when they are in the midst of despair), but there are some wounds that will never be fully resolved, not in this lifetime.

The next time you're around someone who is in the throes of dealing with the brutal news of the unexpected, remember, less is more, and that's one platitude that won't steer you wrong.

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Member Comments

    • 0 votes vote up vote up

      Vikki Hall wrote Apr 1, 2010
    • I know this and wholeheartedly agree but for some reason I always felt like I was lacking when I offer up a hug and a so sorry....

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    • 0 votes vote up vote up

      Tamra wrote Apr 1, 2010
    • I agree.  To make a comment like, “It will be alright” really doesn’t help much.  It minimizes the person’s expression of pain when they really want to be heard.  I think it’s more important to affirm the person and their pain.  To get over it, they must walk through it.  Affirmation helps them face it and accept it.

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    • 0 votes vote up vote up

      UK Girl wrote Apr 1, 2010
    • I whole heartedly agree.
      A hug is way better and a shoulder to cry on

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    • 0 votes vote up vote up

      Yana Berlin wrote Apr 1, 2010
    • So true, I believe that all of us were guilty of saying something along those lines, just because we didn’t know what else to say.

      How coincidental that this post appears today.

      As I’ve gotten older I find myself saying things that might not be very comforting to the person who lost their loved one but rather very true. For instance talking to a friend of mine last night about the loss of her mom, instead of the usual I’m sorry and she is now in peace b.s., I said that it wasn’t fair, she was way to young, way to smart and much loved and needed by everyone around her, and it will take all of us time to get over the initial shock and sorrow. My friend asked me if I can tell everyone around me to just shut up and stop telling her how her her mom is now much better off now that she is not in pain.

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    • 0 votes vote up vote up

      Maryann Rhodey wrote Apr 1, 2010
    • It is difficult to know what to say to someone in time of loss or illness.  It’s not something we are trained on or something someone teaches us.  People probably learn from their parents or other adults when they are younger.  Or others learn from the experience they may have had when people said some of those platitudes to them.  

      Going to just listen to the person is the best thing anyone can do.  Don’t go to talk to the person, go to listen to the person or just sit and be there for them.  Everyone wants to do but the best thing is to be.  

      Over the past 4 years, I have lost 4 people who were important people in my life.  My mother, brother, a dear friend and my aunt.  As our families grieved, the best part was when I could just be there and think with others who mean the most to me by my side.  Those hugs really mean a lot.  No words, just actions.

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    • 0 votes vote up vote up

      Cristina Corral wrote Apr 1, 2010
    • I completely agree and have said some of those things simply because the situation was way too uncomfortable for me OR I thought it was approtiate at the time.

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    • 0 votes vote up vote up

      Denise Critcher wrote Apr 1, 2010
    • Maryann that is so on point. Sometimes all you need is a person knowing that they care for you in your time of need. Just to be there to talk, listen or sit on the couch.

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