Note from Carolyn: This guest post is republished here with the kind permission of its original author Marilyn Gardner, who writes on Communicating Without Boundaries about cross-cultural communication, with an emphasis on faith and third culture kids. Marilyn grew up in Pakistan, lived and worked in Pakistan and Egypt as an adult, and moved to the United States where she is learning to live away from curry, Urdu, Arabic and the Pyramids. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, 15 minutes from the international terminal where she flies to the Middle East and Pakistan as often as possible.
Despite the pervasive popularity of the following cliché reassurances, Marilyn asks that you please leave the following well-meaning but unhelpful platitudes at home whenever you’re trying to comfort a person who is suffering during any kind of personal crisis – including a cardiac emergency:
- God will never give you more than you can handle. While some may believe it is theologically correct, depending on your definitions, it is singularly unhelpful to the person who is neck-deep in a crisis, trying to swim against a Tsunami. A wonderful phrase recently came from Support for Special Needs. They suggest changing this from “God will never give you more than you can handle” to “Let me come over and help you do some laundry.” This strikes me as even more theologically correct.
- It gets better. Yes, yes it does. But right then, it’s not better. And before it gets better, it may get way worse.
- When God shuts a door, he opens a window. Maybe, but maybe not. Maybe he just shuts a door. Maybe there is no window. There was no window for Job. There was a cosmic battle that raged as he sat in distress. There might not be a window. And if Job’s friends had kept their silence, perhaps God would not have told Job to pray for them at the end of the narrative.
- Did you pray about it? Again – theologically correct. “Don’t worry about anything, instead, pray about everything…” but in a crisis, you don’t heap guilt onto pain and suffering. At a time of deep pain in my life, someone said this to me. I looked at him in silence, and then with a shaky voice I said: “We haven’t been able to pray in three months–so no, we haven’t prayed about it.” I was in so much pain– it was like he had slapped me. Pray for the person, but please, please leave the clichés at home.
- God is good – all the time. Another one that is technically theologically correct. But is it helpful to say this when someone has just lost a child and is screaming at Heaven? Is it helpful to say this to the person who just had their fifth miscarriage? Is it helpful to say this to the woman going through a divorce, because her marriage could not hold up under the stress of a special needs child? They may say it, and we can nod our heads in agreement. But for us to say this from a place that is calm and safe will probably not be helpful.
- There but for the grace of God go I. “But why you? Why do you get that grace and not me? Why am I the one in the crisis? Was God’s grace withheld from me?” Those are valid responses to that phrase. I understand the phrase, and I’ve used it myself, but it doesn’t help the person who is in deep pain.
- Don’t worry. God’s in Charge. Yeah? Well, he’s not doing a very good job then, is he? God is in control, but it brings up some serious theological implications about God’s role in the crisis. Instead of a theology of suffering, we might want to think about a fellowship of suffering. Because a fellowship of suffering leads me to sit with a person and say: “It’s too much to bear – may I sit with you and bear it with you?”
- Maybe God needed to get your attention. Thank God no one ever said this to me during times of crisis – because I might have to punch them in the face with a knife. That’s all.
- Maybe this happened for a reason. Remember what I said about punching someone in the face with a knife? Yeah – that.
- Just call me if you need anything. While I want to appreciate this, the fact is that people in crisis usually don’t have the ability to call, so they won’t. Even if you don’t know someone well, you can bring them a meal or drive them somewhere.
- I could never go through what you’re going through. Come again, my friend?? This does not comfort. A false elevation of the character and ability to cope of the person going through the crisis only serves to further wound and isolate. The one who is going through a crisis longs to be on the other side. They wake up and breathe deeply, only to remember the awful reality of their situation, and wish they didn’t have to go through it.
- When I think of your situation, I’m reminded how blessed I am. No. No. No. First off, this is theologically completely incorrect. The beatitudes heap blessing on those that mourn, on those who are meek, on those who are poor in spirit — not on those who are safe, secure, financially stable, and proud. Those in crisis are not an illustration of how blessed everyone else is. In the counter intuitive, upside down way of the Kingdom of God, blessing looks completely different than what we in the West have made it to mean. There are big problems with our use of the word and concept of blessing.
So what do we do? How do we respond?
I think those are difficult questions, but the best analogy I have for people in acute crisis is looking at them as burn victims.
Caring for burn victims is divided into three stages that overlap.
The first is the emergent or resuscitative stage. At this stage, priority is given to removing the person from the source of the burn and stopping the burning process. The big things to think about are fluid replacement, nutrition, and pain management. Translated into crisis care, this means we’ll bring meals, coffee money, and pick up children from day care.
The second stage is the acute or wound healing stage. At this stage, the body is trying to reach a state of balance, while remaining free from infection. During this stage, patients can become withdrawn, combative, or agitated. This stage can be a lengthy and unpredictable stage. Burn victims, like people in crisis, often lash out at those closest to them. Translate this into listening, listening, and listening some more.
The final stage is the rehabilitative or restorative stage. The goal at this stage is for a patient to resume a functional role within their family and community. Reconstruction surgery may be needed. Encouragement and reassurance are critical to the person at this stage. This would translate into going on walks with the person, taking them out to a movie or dinner, having them over for coffee or a meal.
Burn care has a lot to teach us about loving and caring for people in crisis. And those who care for burn victims rarely use clichés — they are too busy caring.
In February, I wrote a piece called Toward a Fellowship of Suffering, and I’ll end what could be a cynical post with words from that piece:
“There is something about suffering that longs for someone to sit with us through the pain. It’s the fellowship of suffering. It’s the words ‘you are not alone’ put into action. The sitting bears witness to our pain. More than a card or a casserole, the familiar, patient presence of another says to us: ‘It’s too much for you to bear, but I will be with you, I will sit with you.’ ”
© 2015 Marilyn R. Gardner
Q: What have you found to be most helpful from others when you’ve been in mid-crisis?
- What (not) to say when you’re visiting the sick
- Post-Traumatic Growth: how a crisis makes life better (or not!)
- Does having a heart attack make you a better person?
- Smile, Though Your Heart is Aching: is fake smiling unhealthy?
- “You look great!” – and other things you should never say to heart patients
- But you don’t look sick…
- Healthy privilege: when you just can’t imagine being sick
- 10 helpful things to say to a sick friend
- Empathy 101: how to sound like you give a damn
- Bereavement Eating: does grief cause carb cravings?
15 thoughts on “Marilyn Gardner’s “Stupid Phrases for People in Crisis””
Don’t you hate those platitudes? I’ve written several posts about this very topic. I think we all get so frustrated by these clueless comments. And, yes, there is a fellowship of suffering. I know I appreciate the incredible bonds that have sustained me through cancer and beyond, mostly from people I’ve never even met in person.
Thanks for reposting this lovely piece, Carolyn, and thanks to Marilyn for writing it.
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Thanks so much, Eileen. I checked out your ‘Attitude about Platitudes‘ post – love the “positivity puppets” part, and the “Attitude Police unloading their arsenal of platitudes…” So clever! Author Barbara Ehrenreich once observed that the pervasive pressure on sick patients to be relentlessly positive is like “seeing the glass half full, even when it lies shattered on the floor.” More on such “positivity” here.
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Don’t people just come out with the daftest things? I can relate to most of the above. Maybe these well meaning people think they are being helpful. Well…… NO YOU’RE NOT AND PLEASE KEEP YOUR WELL MEANING USELESS OPINION TO YOURSELF!
If I had a euro for every time I was told to “Stay positive” and “You’re a fighter!” and “You’re so strong!”, I would be rich. Very rich.
I told a friend one day never to call having cancer or any disease a “battle”. I explained it to her but she still insists on using battle/war terms. Ahh I give up.
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Thanks Mona! Maybe we should just impose an immediate tax on those who insist on those cliché platitudes (“That will be one euro, please!”). Then we would BOTH be rich! You might be interested in reading my post called “Fighting, Battling and Beating: Combat Metaphors in Medicine are Just Wrong“. PS: don’t give up!
I do think most people either mean well or think they do, but sadly, many do not think. I also think that true compassion is often deepened when one has experienced true suffering.
When my heart was punctured and I died twice, and was in the hospital recovering from the emergency open heart surgery, one of my “friends” was regaling the visitors with stories of people who died in the hospital when another true friend bluntly told her to shut up. The woman was utterly clueless about the inappropriateness of her stories.
There have been similar situations this past year since I was sick for 2 months with pneumonia and then had a crisis over the holidays requiring a biopsy on Christmas Eve, which turned out fine, thankfully.
From my perspective, it would be helpful to communicate what is helpful. For me, that would be:
– acknowledgement of the pain or difficulty going on; sugarcoating is infuriating.
– it is important for the visitor to recognize that no one really knows how another person is experiencing something; it is presumptuous to do so. I think it is helpful to let the sick person express what they want if they want….Saying things like, “I am so sorry this happened, I cannot imagine how challenging this is” or “I am so sorry You had a heart attack/got pneumonia/were diagnosed with this…. how are you handling all of this?” can provide an opening.
– expression of concern, sympathy or sorrow that this has happened
– utilize knowledge of the patient’s life to offer specific help, as in “Is there anyone at the gym you’d like me to contact?” Or “Does your cat need anything?” “I will come over and stay with you one afternoon when you get home so your family can run errands or I can run the errands” – specific suggestions sound more authentic than perfunctory general offers.
– just bring an enthralling book over!
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Thanks so much for those useful suggestions. Another thing I really appreciated while at home recuperating was the phonecall saying: “I’m at the grocery store – what can I pick up for you while I’m here?” As you say, SPECIFIC suggestions are the best. That blunt response from your ‘true’ friend to that chatty visitor is an effective way to deal with the “utterly clueless”. I wrote more on that in this “oneupmanship” post.
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Something that people may not always realize is that when one is sick, in pain, recovering and overwhelmed, it takes all of one’s energy to just “be”. Making decisions or even interacting for more than a few minutes can be depleting. I have one dear, dear friend who came to visit me in the hospital and after chatting for a few minutes, pulled out her book and told me to stop talking and rest! 😀
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I agree 100%! Hospital visitors should be restricted, in my opinion, to immediate family and closest friends who will mostly just be there and not demand exhausting chat. Your story reminded me of the “friend” who dropped by to visit me, post-heart attack, whom I had not seen/heard from in FIFTEEN YEARS. Her visit was excruciating, as she filled me in on 15 years worth of news about the kids, work, her family, and all of their holidays together…. If I’d felt even marginally better at the time, I would have tried that “SHUT UP!” strategy of your other friend! There’s a great line in the wonderful movie called Snow Cake in which Sigourney Weaver’s character (who has autism) says to Alan Rickman in the middle of his sentence: “Okay, I’m tired of talking to you now!” I’ve always wanted to use that line myself…
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Oh, heck, yes!! I, too, have written about this. A lot. Compassion is about bearing witness, about listening. If you’re not listening, you cannot understand what someone truly needs. Compassion is distinctly not about telling someone how to feel or think or even what to do.
Some of the worst offenders are people who urge us in some way to ‘stay positive!’ I don’t even know what that means! I do know, however, that labelling feelings as positive or negative is pointless, simplistic drivel. Nothing is achieved by applying some kind of value judgment to how someone feels.
Great post. Thank you, Marilyn!
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Thanks for weighing in here with your perspective, Kathi! It’s so true: it’s open season out there on judging whether or not we are coping with crisis in the appropriate fashion!
Hi Marilyn and Carolyn,
I have written about this topic too. There are so many platitudes loosely and too often tossed around that are unhelpful, hurtful and even potentially harmful.
Frankly, I’m sort of weary of assuming people mean well. Of course most do, but still, it shouldn’t be that hard for most people to dig a little deeper, or at least try to. Also, there continues to be this effort to find the positive, fix someone’s hurt, or imply whatever crisis a person is dealing with should be an “opportunity” for enlightenment.
I always say, just show up! Just listen. You can’t fix everything and it’s not your job anyway. Silence is so under-rated. Thank you both for sharing this post.
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Brilliant advice, Nancy: “JUST SHOW UP!” I’m going to go embroider that on a pillow…
I love how Marilyn’s essay ended with: “It’s too much for you to bear, but I will be with you, I will sit with you.” Wouldn’t you love to hear those kind words when you’re feeling terribly scared or overwhelmed?
Speaking of trying to dig a little deeper, it was interesting to see the recent backlash online against the old platitude “Our thoughts and prayers are with you…” after yet another horrific school shooting in the U.S. recently. And don’t even get me started on AFGO, roughly translated: “another (frickety-frackin’) growth opportunity”! Should never be uttered out loud to anybody in crisis…
NOTE TO MY READERS: Please check out Nancy’s new book “Cancer Was Not a Gift and It Didn’t Make Me a Better Person”
A very helpful post, Marilyn. Thanks for sharing it with us, Carolyn.
I really like the burn victim analogy. Clearly, people do not mean to be thoughtless or rude. We are just too quick to resort to trite expressions. I recently stumbled onto a blog post that implored readers to stop saying “Everything happens for reason”. I loved the honest and poignant perspective offered as an alternative, attributed to Megan Devine: “Some things in life cannot be fixed. They can only be carried.”
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Thanks Denise! You raise such an important point: none of us ever say any of these things with any intent to be thoughtless, but they’re such commonly-expressed platitudes that – unless we really pause and think about them ahead of time – they’re so easy to blurt out automatically! Thanks also for sharing that lovely Megan Devine alternative suggestion to saying “Everything happens for a reason…”