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How to Respond to a Cliché

After your loved one died, were you ever hit with a cliché? Of course you were. By this time, you’ve heard them all. Here’s a beginning list.* Which one gets to you the most?

I know just how you feel.

It was God’s will.

Everything happens for a reason.

You’re so strong. I just don’t know how you do it.

Life goes on.

At least you had him this long.

God never gives us more than we can handle.

You’re not your old self.

If there’s anything I can do….

You should be over this by now.

You must be strong for your children.

It’s better this way.

You’ve got to get ahold of yourself.

Count your blessings.

Think of all your precious memories.

I have a warning for you: There are more clichés coming your way. You knew that, right? On top of all you’ve been through, once again you’ll find yourself face-to-face with some oblivious soul who believes that the words tumbling out of their mouth are somehow a good thing. The question is, “What can you do about it?” That’s what this article is about. Here are some suggestions:

1. Head clichés off at the pass—This is the only preventive suggestion: You put out a message at the next physical gathering, (or in a text, email, Facebook, Twitter) that says something like, “In your effort to help me cope with my loss, please refrain from uttering the following phrases. They don’t help….”

2. Catch them in the act—At the instant the person begins to spit out their “words of wisdom,” hold up your hand and state in a calm voice, “That’s not helpful.” Or even, “Shut the hell up.” Or something to that effect.

3. Give yourself a moment (or several minutes) while you catch your breath—Even if the person is on to the next topic, you can still say, “Oh, let me stop you for a moment. I have something to say.” And then say it. Once you are finished you could add, “OK, what were you saying?”

4. If it happened a while ago—Here you are the next day or the next month, still stewing over the person’s words. You can still say something like, “Remember last month when I was talking about (say your loved one’s name) and you said, ‘____________’? Well, I’ve been thinking about it and I want to ask that, from now on, you not use that expression.”

5. Decide if you wish to steer clear of this person. Is it possible to eliminate them from future interactions?

The recipient of your request has a choice on how to respond. Let’s look:

1. Silence followed by an understanding nod

2. A quiet “OK.”

3. An apology, “I’m sorry. I was only trying to help.”

4. Rationalization—the person comes up with an attempt to justify their behavior

5. Anger—"You don’t need to be so sensitive.”

6. Rejection—“Obviously I can’t help you. You need help with this.”

So, there it is—a list of cliches, suggestions for how to reply, and possible responses back to you. When people encounter someone in grief, a common thought is, “This is hard (as in ‘painful’) to watch. Let me find a way to somehow make it better.” By calling up clichés, the person may believe this to be a “quick fix.” Several years ago, one of my uncles died. A few months later one of my other (still married) aunts called me saying, “I’m calling you, not as my nephew, but for advice from an expert on grief [is there really such a thing?]” She continued, “Yesterday, I was listening to your aunt talk about all her grief and how much she missed her husband; and I said, ‘You both had a good life. Life goes on.’ I’m asking you, was this helpful?” I briefly explained the problem with clichés. She thanked me and hung up. A few months later her own husband died. And, when I saw her at the funeral, she looked at me, nodding, saying, “Now I really get it. I’ve heard so many clichés in the past few days. It makes me sick.”

If you think of clichés as words that are given with the intent to make you or the person feel better (more often the latter), you can begin to understand why people use them. When empty words come at you, it doesn’t feel good. It tells you that the person doesn’t get it. What is important for you now is to remember that you have a choice as to how you want to respond. By you calling this person on their cliché, perhaps you can spare the next person in grief from such a poor choice of words. If you speak up, who knows how many people you would have been saved from this cliché-wielding person?


Dr. Bob

*from “I Know Just How You Feel” (1986) by Erin Linn

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