Why Clichés Drive Us Crazy
Erin Linn is well known to members of the TCF community. Her first book, CHILDREN ARE NOT PAPER DOLLS, was written after the death of her six-year old son, Michael. Her growing interest in the bereavement of children resulted in the publication of her second book, I KNOW JUST HOW YOU FEEL, which addresses the topic of clichés and what people can say to a bereaved person.
In 1974 my six-year-old son Michael was hit by a car and died instantly. Before this tragic accident, I had no idea it was possible to hurt with such intensity. When others would speak of their losses, I really thought I understood. I would say things like "Time will heal" or "I know just how you feel." Then I would retreat into my own little world of security and thank God under my breath that it wasn’t me. I did hurt for these people, but it was so hard to relate to a level of pain that I, myself, had never experienced . . . .until Michael died.
Throughout our lives most of us spend some time being comforted or being in the comforter, being consoled or being the consoler. Both roles are painfully difficult and, at time, can be overwhelming. It is human nature to want to reach out and help those who are in pain. When we know of someone who is grieving, we offer words that we hope will both soothe and comfort. Unfortunately, our soothing words may be the most feared of all verbal weapons -- the cliché. By its very definition, a cliché -- a trite and commonplace expression -- is misused, misunderstood, or overworked.
How to approach the bereaved person is something that people have agonized over since the beginning of time. How often have we said or heard someone say, "What can I say to them?" How often has the bereaved person asked, "Why did they say that to me?"
Clichés are a manifestation of our innate inability to deal with a grieving person, and unfortunately, clichés are inevitable. If we analyze the problems with clichés, then, hopefully, we can learn how to defend ourselves against them. First of all, many clichés tend to focus on the future and do not deal with the real problem – the actual pain of the bereaved person at that very moment; For example, sayings such as "You’re young and you will be able to make a new life for yourself" or "There is no sense dwelling on the past" tend to discount the immediate pain of the bereaved person at a time when the future seems impossible to comprehend. When your child has died, you will feel stuck in "yesterday," and even getting through the existing day will seem to be a monumental task. "Tomorrow" is out of the question, and the future can seem light-years away.
Secondly, clichés too often express how the consoler thinks the bereaved person "should" feel, and usually this is in direct contradiction to how the bereaved person really feels. "You should be over this by now" is possibly one of the most offensive and destructive of all clichés, because it is usually said long before the full effect of the loss has even begun to sink in, and it causes bereaved people to think that there must be something terribly wrong with them if they are still grieving. It is a cruel quirk of fate that most grieving people are just beginning to realize the depth of their despair at the time when those around them presume that they are almost healed.
Another problem with clichés are that they try to give profound answers and easy solutions to overwhelming problems. How often have we heard it said, "Only the good die young." If this is true, then shouldn’t we all pray for death at birth? If it is true that "God never gives us more than we can handle," then why do people commit suicide or attempt to obliterate reality through drug abuse? "He is happy now for he is with God" could cause a severe knee-jerk reaction such as "Wasn’t he happy with me?"
Also, many clichés are true if taken at face value but are too difficult for the bereaved person to believe in the midst of his grief. "Time will heal" sounds so easy and it is usually true, but in the beginning it is hard for any bereaved person to believe that the unbearable pain will ever stop. "If you look around, you can always find someone who is worse off than yourself" is certainly true, but who wants to feast on the misfortune of others?
Last but not least, clichés can place expectations on a bereaved person that are impossible to meet. "You’ve got to get hold of yourself" sounds like good, sound advice but is obviously said by those who have never lost a child and have never experienced despair. William Shakespeare so aptly put it when he said, "Every man can handle grief but he who has it." "Big boys don’t cry" – will someone please tell me why big boys can’t cry? Where did this ridiculous cliché come from? Crying is therapeutic. The tears shed in sadness have a different chemical makeup from those shed in laughter or physical pain. Maybe this cliché would be more accurate if it read "Big boys don’t cry – if they are inhuman."
Now that we know how ridiculous and inadequate most clichés are, let’s explore why people say these things. In defense of the consolers, I truly believe that their intentions are honorable and they really want to help. What may appear as insensitive comments from friends and relatives can really be words of love – sometimes they are simply expressed in a clumsy awkward way. As bereaved person, try to keep in mind that the comforter is, also, searching for answers and ways to deal with these tragedies.
Our society suffers from a severe lack of death education. It has only been within the last fifteen years or so that we have begun seriously to research the bereaved person’s journey through grief. Death – not only ours but that of our loved ones – is the one thing (along with taxes and clichés) that we will all have to face at some point of our lives but is the last thing we want to read about, hear about, talk about, or learn about.
As a result, reactions to the grief-stricken are more well-intentioned than well-informed. Clichés have been accepted as comfort far too long. Consequently, we tend to fall back on things that are familiar and comfortable in times of stress, and these stale phrases tend to perpetuate themselves from one generation to the next.
Most consolers feel a need to say something profound. There is a desperate need for the comforter to supply an answer or provide a remedy for the bereaved person’s pain, lest they fail to really help. Most comforters cannot accept the fact that a hug and three simple words, "I am sorry," is all they really need to say. If we speak from our hearts with all the honesty and love we each possesses, these canned remedies – clichés – would not be a necessary. Why can’t people just say, "I feel so terrible that I don’t know what to say."
As a bereaved parent, there are a whole medley of clichés that you are sure to hear. Some you will find comforting, and others will be terribly upsetting. A cliché that at first may give you great solace may be one that you will come to detest as time goes by. They will range from the ridiculous to the sublime. You will hear such remarks as "God needed some flowers for His garden in Heaven, new sheep for His meadow, new angels for His baseball team," or heaven forbid, you could even hear "At least now, you have one less mouth to feed."
Although unintentional, clichés can be hurtful and harmful. These misunderstandings and miscommunications can greatly inhibit the grief process. Some clichés may make you feel abnormal, maladjusted, or even unholy.
Friends and relatives may be the worst offenders. Our expectations of those close to us are so high that it is inevitable that at least one of our loved ones will disappoint us by saying the wrong thing or not saying the right thing.
It is easy to agonize over things that are said to us. Hurtful words seem to stay with a bereaved person longer and might cause pain and anger that may never be resolved.
Because of increased sensitivity during times of mourning, what might have been said as an innocent remark by the consoler could be construed as terribly hurtful and hateful by the bereaved.
As awful as some clichés can be though, it is usually better to be hit in the face with a bad cliché than to be tortured with silence. The most painful words can be those that are unspoken. It can be unbearable to go back to work and have nobody mention your child’s death, to be at a family reunion and have nobody mention your child’s name. This "conspiracy of silence" can be worse than all the bad clichés that were ever written.
I hope that you now have a better understanding of clichés and how you can control your reaction to them. You can choose to be offended by them, or you can choose to brush them off as another dumb statement said by someone who doesn’t know what he is talking about. We can even go one step farther. Instead of just reacting to clichés, how can we go on the offense?
This may seem too much to ask of a bereaved person because grieving can sap a person’s strength and energy. But if someone were standing on your foot in a crowded elevator, wouldn’t you ask him to move? Of course you would. Then why should we let people stand on our feelings without saying something about it? We must let our needs to known, instead of begrudgingly accepting the painful words that are said to us.
Because it is traditional in our society for bereaved people to smile in public and cry in private, we give the message to the outside world that we are all right. This is misleading, but it is a game we are all forced to play.
Because of these ground rules, we must give some degree of understanding to the comforter, who in most cases is reacting to our "acting." We are not helpless. We do have choices.
Someday we will once again be called upon to set aside our role as the comforted and become the comforter. Hopefully we will have improved in both wisdom and understanding so that we may become the comforter that we would have wished for in our own despair.
Erin Linn’s I Know Just How You Feel is available for purchase through the National TCF Office.
The cost is $6.00. Her book 150 Facts About Grieving Children is $5.00.
Two other books by the author are also available. Children are Not Paper Dolls, ($8.95) and Premonitions, Visitations, and Dreams of the Bereaved ($6.95) also may be ordered.
Please include $3.50 for shipping and handling for orders under $25.00