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?