Responding to platitudes

Sometimes I am seeing patients that are mine- a woman who comes to see me every year for her annual. Many of these patients stand out in my memory- sometimes for good reasons (especially kind or funny) and sometimes for less good reasons (rude or difficult). Sometimes I see patients who make appointments with whichever provider is available and so they are jumping around seeing a different person each time. I recently saw the name of a patient on my schedule that I recognized. She stood out to me as someone I see regularly and my memory of her was as an exceptionally kind woman. We had a nice visit, catching up on her year spent in another state and her recent move back. She asked “how are you?” in a compassionate way that made me think she knew about Mabel. I gave a little more detail than I usually do- “it’s been a tough year, but I’m here now.”

After the visit I was sitting in my office and I heard her at the front window asking if I was still available. I told my secretary to send her in because I hadn’t gone to see my next patient yet.

“Meghan, I just saw the sign about your daughter, “ she began. “I’m so sorry.” She had just been her usual kind self during the visit without even knowing what had happened to me. I smiled and thanked her, reiterating how tough it has been.

“I’m sure,” she said gently, “but you need to know, everything happens for a reason. I God has a plan.” Her words were genuine- she really believed that. I felt torn. I knew her words were coming from a good place in her heart, but they were completely unhelpful to me. I don’t blame her for sharing that platitude- I’ve learned that the intentions behind the words are good- but I also feel some sense of responsibility to the other babylost. Since I am quite outspoken about my daughter, I feel a bit of an obligation to help people learn more helpful things to say to the grieving. Since I knew this patient well, I decided to try with her.

“Yeah,” I said softly, trying to come across non-confrontational “I’m not sure I totally believe that…”

“No, it does. I truly believe that. I’ve gone through some terrible things in my life and I believe they got me to where I was today.” I understood her sentiment, but I was unsure I got my point across. “We are here until we serve our purpose.”

“Now that’s something I could believe,” I responded with a small smile, trying to give positive reinforcement to words that are more helpful.

“She was here to teach you something,” she continued. “Are you familiar with the serenity prayer? God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.” I was able to accept her words more readily.

It’s easy to want to snap at people when they say unhelpful things. Depending on the situation, I usually just smile politely and move on or simply shut down- once an active part of the conversation turning into a non-responder and then I go on to vent to someone who understands. I have been the other person though- I know in the past I have said stupid, unhelpful, perhaps even hurtful things because I didn’t know how unhelpful the words were. I was trying to fill up space with expressions that seemed appropriate because I didn’t know what to say. But if someone had taken the time to explain that such platitudes hurt more than help, I would ultimately have been grateful. I would have been deeply embarrassed and felt terribly ashamed, but if they told me more helpful words, I would have learned and even started conversations with others who were as ignorant as me. I feel like I don’t have the right to complain about people rattling off platitudes if I don’t try to educate them. This instance was a start- not ultimately how I want every conversation to go, but it was a first step into a world of advocacy. I still don’t know how to correct or educate someone gracefully- in a way that is thankful for them saying something but suggestive of things to say that are more helpful. Or perhaps I need to suggest how to reframe the same words, like:

“Everything happens for a reason” –> I don’t know what you believe, but I have taken comfort in thinking that everything happens for a reason. The terrible things I have experienced have helped me grow. Though at the time I wouldn’t have believed it, I do now.

Same sentiment, but for me I would be far more receptive to the latter. The former feels preachy, the latter feels inclusive and open to conversation. Not sure how I’d work that suggestion of presentation into a conversation, but for now I figure I work under the same guise as training my puppy. I’ll reinforce the good behavior- engaging in responses to helpful words- and ignore bad behavior- colder responses and less engagement to hurtful words.


This I can do.  I can work on advocating for the babyloss, educating when I can, being a voice for those who are silent.

Have you ever tried to educate someone regarding their platitudes? What happened?

25 thoughts on “Responding to platitudes

  1. Ah I’ve been there. Platitudes are well-intentioned and how I respond can depend on how I am feeling on the day. I like your idea of reframing what the person has said, and I agree, I have probably have said unintentional insensitive things in the past too. So ultimately, I totally agree with you about educating folks – reinforcing the positive behaviour and ignoring the negative. That seems like a fabulous philosophy xxx

  2. So this has been exceptionally hard for me lately. I’m a Christian, and get the “God has a plan” platitude still pains me like a knife in my heart. Because I don’t want to believe that His plan was to take my children from me. How does that make sense? So I no longer like that statement, because a tough one to swallow whether you’re religious or not. And I feel it’s very cliche these days. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard it, to the point where I just want to SCREAM. I don’t understand why things happen. I don’t understand why I have a million pregnant friends who have no experience with baby loss, and yet I’m the one who’s gone through this twice. It doesn’t make sense. Why me? The only thing I can come up with is yes, we all have a purpose. And maybe my purpose is to be the voice for those women who are too afraid to speak. Because I, too, and very outspoken about my losses because I have to be. It helps me. And I don’t feel I should have to suppress my sorrow to celebrate someone else’s happiness. Because that’s not fair. We all deserve respect for our emotions.

    I’m rambling, but I’ve just had a very hard week and needed to vent about this.

    • not rambling at all! In fact, I think the Christian view (from someone who has lost) of “God has a plan” is especially interesting. Sometimes I wonder if its my lack of religion that irks me. But reading your words is helpful. I got a lot of “god has a plan” and everything happens for a reason” when we learned of Mabel’s Down Syndrome- it irked me then (why must I be the one to suffer with worry over my child?) but now even more so. at the time, “everyone has a purpose” helped me a lot too. a colleague said it to me and it stuck. its a better one.

  3. Uff, on a specific note, in this instance I rankle at the sentiment “the bad things made me who I am” when it’s presented as a source of comfort. Yes, it’s true that our experiences shape us, and that thought is useful in the context of a conversation about hope for the future. But in the context “things happen (babies die) for a reason and maybe that reason is to make you strong”. Oh my gosh, to me that just says the person doesn’t understand. My baby was a human being, just as much as I am, and I’m pretty offended by the suggestion that the purpose of his conception, life and death was for the benefit of my own personal growth… He was an innocent person, not just an event in my life. It’s not like I lost a job or failed a class or missed a flight. That is something I’ve explained to people. “It is helpful to know I can get through this, but that doesn’t mean I can just skip over the mourning process. And I know this is changing me in a lot of ways, but that’s painful too. I kinda liked myself before my child and I went through this!”

    • Ugh and also, “it might be hard for you to hear/understand this now, but…” drives my nuts in most contexts. If it’s someone speaking from true personal experience, or at least lots of professional experience, then okay – maybe. Or if it’s in the sense of “I don’t know where you are in the process and if this is the right thing to say at the moment”, that’s okay. But when it’s coming from someone who’s claiming to have more insight and wisdom about my own experience than I do, with nothing to back it up, while meanwhile effectively silencing me by implying that of course I’ll eventually agree and if I don’t agree in the moment, it must just be because I’m so emotional? Gah, talk about condescending!!! (Lots of long replies here, I think you’ve struck a nerve 😘 Also you were clearly missed while you were away!!)

      • dare I say “it might be hard for you to hear this now” is hard for me to accept from anyone? because really, as similar as we all are, our lives are so different. “it’ll be better when you have another”- what if I cant have another? dont want another? and what do I do until then??? “you’ll look back and grow from it” duh. of course I will, doesnt make it hurt any less. “you should… (go to work, take more time off, distract more, grieve more mindfully, fill in the blank)” frankly, I’m doing what I can, when I can. But yes, so very very condescending from those with no relatable experience! arg!

    • yes- on so many points! I too feel that way- the bad things make me who I am- but that is my judgement to make, not forced upon me. And it doesnt mean I’m not allowed to mourn the bad things! Mabel deserved a life too- more than just to teach me something- I hope she did not suffer, though I’m sure there was some pain (oh, how must it feel to not be able to breathe?). I cant in my mind justify her suffering to teach me a lesson i could have learned so many other ways. And I was pretty dope before all this, so I’m told. it’s hurtful that people think I needed betterment in this way.

  4. Years and years ago I read “When Bad Things Happen to Good People” written by a rabbi who lost a son to the aging disease.….it was of immense help to me as he listed all the (well intentioned) platitudes spoken by people who think they are helping us. Then he vented his arguments against every single platitude in articulate, reasoned ways. We are subject to chaotic natural laws in this life and they are often cruel. I am just thankful to have read this book. I can’t say that I don’t get angry with “God” at times or mentally rant about how life is so unfair when I am getting some bad deal I don’t “deserve.” But one thing I steadfastly believe…my higher power does not have some plan to hurt me or those I love to make us better people.

    • Yes- so well put! the chaotic and natural laws of this life- thats the only way I can make sense of it- random statistics! and yes, whatever higher power there may be- they can not being doing something to hurt mw. that cant be right. beautifully put!

  5. Ah, yes, this is familiar to me as well. I don’t believe that specific platitude (both because I think both good things and bad things often happen by random chance and because I don’t believe in god as most people conceive of him), but it doesn’t actually matter that I don’t believe it. Even if I DID believe it, I don’t want Owen to have died so I could grow. To me, I would gladly remain stunted (although I don’t think I would have) for him to live and grow and be a wonderful person. I would happily give up my full life for him to have a full life, if the logic in this sentiment is correct (which I don’t think it is). I read an article on (I think) Glow in the Woods where the author says that the only thing worse than there not being a reason her baby died is if there WAS a reason. That’s pretty much how I feel, too. I think I have grown spiritually and emotionally as a direct result of parenting Owen and caring for him in death, but it certainly isn’t a requirement.

    Ultimately, I like your idea of reeducating folks and helping them arrange their sentiments into a more helpful wording. I might try that next time. I always try to remember the sentiment behind the comment, but I’m not always awesome at that. I still think sticking with a heartfelt “I’m sorry” is the best bet, but just because that works for me doesn’t mean it works for most people.

    • wow- so powerful- only thing worse than there not being a reason her baby died is if there WAS a reason! yes! there is some solace in knowing if there was a way to prevent this, then I can protect the next one- or find someone to blame. but then to know there was something I could have done, and I didnt- that would be torture!

      I really really want to figure out how I can so very gently re-educate people. I’m at a place now, where I can let the platitudes roll off me without causing distress, by thinking of their intentions. but I want to help those who like the earlier me in grief were so hurt byt the words. the trick is figuring out how.

  6. It so frustrates me, as a Christian, to hear so many other Christians say crap like that! It can be downright offensive. I can’t imagine how pissed I would be if I lost my child and someone said that. And I don’t think everyone means to be insulting or mean, but until we start having these conversations as a culture (and a religion), it will just perpetuate. When I was in college I was diagnosed as Bipolar and all of these crappy platitudes came out of the woodwork. “Everything happens for a reason.” “God knows what he’s doing.” Seriously? What the heck? The God I worship every Sunday, the one who (as I was taught) loves me more than I can possibly fathom has essentially caused me to be massively depressed and sick? For the rest of my life? Yeah, no. I reject that theology. I need to believe that I’m not a puppet. Thankfully my church and many many pastors I’ve encountered, ascribe to the belief similar to toni596. God isn’t out to get us. Thank goodness. As for me, I think that God has indeed helped me use this bad thing that’s happened to me. I’ve become more active in the mental health community and I work hard to fight the stigma surrounding my illness. Seven years later, this is where I am. No more platitudes for me. 🙂

    • Oh and I forgot to answer your question: yes. If anyone says that stuff to me now, I flat out say “I don’t believe that. I believe that God rejoices when I’m happy, not when I’m sad. I don’t believe that I worship a God who inflicts pain and suffering. I am however, grateful that I have been able to find a way to help others through my own pain, and I do believe he was a major part of that process.” I got some shocked looks a few times, but lots of times I just had some honest conversations about why I think I have it- and how God isn’t the cause.

      • amazing response! and I’m happy to hear it spurned some good conversation. My fear is if I respond the wrong way, it’ll just shut people down, they’ll feel indignant and pissed for even saying something. it’s good to hear people had some open responses to you. Very helpful for me to read (even as a non christian! 🙂

  7. I really love Lauren’s response, above. And I really admire your desire to educate, especially as I used to be one of those platitudes people! My problem with platitudes like this (“it was meant to happen;” “God never gives you more than you can handle,”) is that they all imply that MY life is more important than Anderson’s, that his death was a passive thing that happened so that I could learn some vague “lesson.” How could a benevolent God mean for a baby to die? I can’t imagine that God’s “plan” for Anderson involved a life of wires and tubes and painful pricks. The value of his entire life was NOT so that I could gain in wisdom or whatever. He was worth much more than that. Anyway, that’s why these bug the heck out of me, too!

    Unfortunately, I lost my faith when he died. I just don’t see the point in prayer anymore. It did not spare his life or my pain. Prayer, to me, is hypocritical now, an exercise in what’s-the-point. I say unfortunately because it means I respond sometimes less than generously when I’m given a platitude. Once, when someone said, “it must be part of God’s plan,” I said “I’m sorry, I cannot believe in a God who plans to create children just to kill them” and walked away. A bit bitter, I was. I also spent several minutes trying to debate with someone who was just convinced that everything would be perfect next time (I did not succeed in convincing her that, in fact, things might not be perfect – she thought I was just being a debbie downer).

    I feel like Still Standing had an article once on things not to say to a babyloss mom, and suggestions of what to say instead….

  8. I once had a coworker say to me right after my 3rd miscarriage (while smiling serenely), “I just know that whether or not you have any children, one day you’ll feel like everything happened just like it was supposed to.” My first thought was, “no, I will never, EVER feel like my children were supposed to die.” My second thought was that I’d like to punch her in the throat and then run away crying. My third thought was, “I hope those words come back to choke you the next time you complain about how you didn’t have the life or marriage you feel like you deserve, because you got pregnant in college, you bitch.” My fourth thought was that I didn’t know how I’d say anything at all without sobbing. What I finally said was, “That’s a long process, and I am nowhere close to that. My first thought was right though, and I should have said it.

    I have responded to, “Everything happens for a reason,” with, “No, I believe that everything that has happened to me has shaped me into the person that I am, but that’s not the same thing.” Sometimes people have trouble wrapping their heads around those two beliefs being different, but they are different. The change in who I am in reaction to life events is not the reason for them. Also, whether I change for the better, or for the worse says something about my underlying character. It’s not black and white either… Some aspects of my personality have improved, while others have suffered. I’ve grown more compassionate (though I was pretty compassionate to begin with), and I’m less likely to say stupid, well meaning platitudes On the other hand, my patience with people in general, and my tolerence for bullshit has taken a hit.

    Finally, the God has a plan comment really bothers me. Some of it is probably because I’m not particularly religious. It’s funny… I’ve recently been struggling with how I can be so mad at someone I don’t think exists, but that’s a whole separate story. I really think what bothers me the most about that phrase is the hypocrisy. I say hypocrisy because it’s a phrase that’s usually uttered by people who will also tell you that God is a good, kind & loving god. There is a conflict inherent in this. God can’t be both kind and loving, and kill babies. It makes no sense. A good person would not cause that kind of suffering, no matter the end goal. I will probably offend some people with this, but I would actually take it better if someone said to me, “God has a plan that involved your babies’ deaths, because our God is a bitter, vengeful god.” That at least makes some kind of sense. It’s much more comforting for me to embrace the thought that there is no reason for anything. It’s tricky to say this to people though, because most people are so firmly entrenched in their own beliefs that they can’t even hear an opposing view with out taking offense. Also, it’s a cold world out here in the randomness, and I don’t really want to yank other peoples blankets off. I just wish they wouldn’t use their blankets to smother other people.

    • I agree- God can’t be both kind and loving, and kill babies. I dont fall into any camp- just the camp of I dont know what I believe- but I totally see your point, it makes more sense to describe a vengeful god, if people are talking about his plan which includes letting our babies die. and yes, i believe in the cold world of randomness. that’s how I make sense of it all.

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