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The problems of platitudes

I recently found myself with some unexpected time on my hands due to a cancelled work shift and decided to rewatch the movie Collateral Beauty. For those of you who don’t remember the 2016 movie, available on DVD, the plot can be summarized as “When a successful New York City advertising executive suffers a great tragedy, he retreats from life. While his concerned friends try desperately to reconnect with him, he seeks answers from the universe by writing letters to Love, Time, and Death. But it's not until his notes bring unexpected personal responses that he begins to understand how these constants interlock in a life fully lived, and how even the deepest loss can reveal moments of meaning and beauty.—Warner Bros”.

Will Smith’s character, Howard, is a successful man who becomes deeply depressed after the death of his 6-year-old daughter. He meets the human embodiments of the concepts of Love, Time and Death who are actors hired by his friends and coworkers to portray them. Throughout the course of the movie, he has conversations with each of them as he tries to face his fears.

As a death doula, I thought one of his conversations with “Death”, as portrayed by Helen Mirren’s character of Brigitte, demonstrated the problems of platitudes. Howard says to Brigitte, “I’ve heard all of your platitudes. I got them, I know. “She’s in a better place” And, “This is all part of a master plan.” Heard that one too. Here’s my favorite. “God looked down and saw the most beautiful rose, so beautiful that he picked it to have it in Heaven all for Himself.”

Other examples of death-related platitudes are:

“God never gives us more than we can handle.”

“It must have been his/her/their time.”

“Be grateful you had him/her/they for X years.”

“You’ll be seeing him/her/them soon enough.”

“Its God’s will.”

“Everybody will die sooner or later.”

“At least he/she/they isn’t/aren’t suffering anymore.”

“Only the good die young.”

“Time heals all wounds.”

“I know how you feel.”

“Life will go on.”

“You need to say goodbye”.

I’m sure as you are reading this blog, that other platitudes that you may have heard have popped into your mind. Statements like these don’t help to ease the pain of the mourner. Platitudes can and usually are interpreted by the bereaved, on some level, as condescending and hurtful. Platitudes thus often bring more sorrow than comfort and may lead to angry reactions either in public or in private. As a death doula, I have witnessed both.

It’s only human nature to wish to offer comforting words to a bereaved person. So why do such unkind phrases get uttered? Perhaps it is because people have difficulty facing an uncomfortable situation themselves. Grief clouds our reactions, interpretations and understanding of circumstances outside of our personal world. Platitudes become a subject on which grievers can target their anger in their grief process·

Why else might (unkind) platitudes get uttered? Perhaps people just don’t know what to say, so they mimic what they have heard other people say. Perhaps it is due to a lack of awareness of how a mourner will feel upon hearing these phrases. Perhaps it is ignorance. Many people just don’t know what to say that may “help” those who are working through the stages of grief. Perhaps it is due to a lack of death education. Many people use platitudes due to their own fears about death. Many people do not know how to handle another person’s obvious emotional turmoil. Many people haven’t been directly taught what is appropriate to say. In summary, platitudes help to distance the speaker from the griever’s situation.

In conclusion, demonstrate genuine compassion when the appropriate words are lacking. Simply saying, “He/She/They will be missed.” or “I’m here for you”, or “Here’s what I can do for you...”, are better choices. Even better is to demonstrate your empathy through caring and compassionate gestures. The best response is just to be present and listen.

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