As an English major with an interest in psychology, I am constantly analyzing the effect that words can have on people. Words are magical units of meaning that we can combine in infinite ways to convey ideas and thoughts. Some combinations can be healing, while others can have the opposite effect, even if the intention is comfort.
I like to think of language as a puzzle with myriad acceptable solutions but few perfect answers. There are many ways to get your point across and exponentially more ways to miscommunicate. Similarly, few ways exist to say exactly the right thing. Empathetic awareness is key to determining what questions to ask or what comforts to offer.
Understanding the person you are trying to comfort is helpful. Even if you don’t know them well, you can communicate with compassion. It is important to listen and try to understand what they are going through before you talk.
Saying, “Oh, I can’t imagine what that must be like” isn’t helpful. Try. Try to imagine, instead of choosing not to feel someone’s pain.
I think I have gotten pretty good at comforting others. Following are a few tips to help you find the words when someone needs support.
- Imagine: Try to imagine what they could be thinking and feeling. Channel your inner Deanna Troi from “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and access their emotional space. Let your empathy inform your response.
- Be original: Don’t default to prepackaged phrasing. Trust me, if you’ve heard it before, so have they — and it probably wasn’t helpful the first time they heard it. Whether the person is dealing with a health crisis, grief and loss, or a general case of the bummers, rid your vocabulary of platitudes.
The issue with platitudes
I try to avoid platitudes altogether. But be careful with faith-based or philosophical sentiments. Even if you think someone with strong religious beliefs might find comfort in the sentiment, tragedies can cause people to question their faith. I’m not saying the statements are wrong or that you have bad intentions. But it’s important to consider what the person will or will not want to hear.
Following are statements that could hurt someone whose faith has been challenged or insult someone with different beliefs.
- “God won’t give you more than you can handle.”
- “This happened to grow your faith and make you stronger.”
- “Everything happens for a reason.”
- “He was too good for this earth.”
- “God needed another angel.”
- “She’s in a better place.”
Platitudes can be especially harmful to someone in the depths of a traumatic event or loss. Platitudes meant to comfort may have the opposite effect, making the person feel as though they aren’t being heard or supported.
Careless language can hurt long after the storm has passed. For example, my mom knows she is incredibly fortunate to have received a double-lung transplant. However, the phrase, “You’re so lucky” can frustrate her, especially when she is struggling with side effects and symptoms of immunosuppression. The comment, while well-meant, could come across as, “Your current suffering isn’t that bad. You should be grateful to be alive!” She is grateful for her lungs and her life, but that doesn’t negate the many hard and painful moments that occurred along the way. It isn’t always easy, even when she is healthy.
It’s hard for me to hear that my mom’s donor died for her to live. It is simply untrue. People die every day, and those awaiting transplant receive organs if they match a donor in their geographical region. The miraculous gift from my mom’s donor prolonged her life. But saving my mom’s life was not the reason for or cause of her donor’s death.
“Someone died for her” is hurtful to hear because it assumes a causal relationship that doesn’t exist. It also begets expectation, as if my mom must go above and beyond to honor herself and her donor. It pressures her to do more than she otherwise would have. Sure, it could encourage her to do extraordinary things, but it also could lead to anxiety, disappointment, and guilt.
Many pitfalls can cause a breakdown in communication. If you use empathy to formulate thoughtful, original conversation and avoid platitudes, you can improve your communication when supporting someone through a hard time.
Note: Pulmonary Fibrosis News is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Pulmonary Fibrosis News or its parent company, BioNews Services, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to pulmonary fibrosis.
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