Individuals in my situation, cancer “survivors”, or those going through divorce, are bombarded with Platitudes. These statements are uncomfortable at best, hurtful at worst. The reason for this is that a platitude “is a statement, especially one with a moral content, that has been used too often to be interesting or thoughtful” (dictionary.com) . In other words, platitudes are cliché’s most people use to avoid an uncomfortable situation. We all use them, but some of us receive them more the others, like those of us going through cancer, divorce or some other terrifying situation. I have come to the conclusion that there are only 3 ways to avoid platitudes:
1. Don’t let your life become a train wreck
2. If your life has becomes a train wreck, clean up the wreckage quickly
3. If numbers 1 & 2 fail, change the subject!
I have some extremely empathetic, caring, concerned people in my life, but they are worn out. They have nothing left for me but platitudes, and I honestly don’t blame them.
I first noticed this about 2 months into my ovarian cancer treatment. In the beginning everyone was there, offering true Comfort – sharing their disbelief, fears and lack of words. Yes, this is comforting. When someone looks at you and says “I have no words”, then hugs you, it is comforting. You know they feel the terror you are experiencing. There is no doubt that they see you, they see your pain and your fear, and they care.
As time goes on though, the angst of feeling that authentic concern is overwhelming to those not in the actual situation. Who in their right mind would choose to remain in the pain of advanced stage cancer if they don’t have to? Not any of my peeps! (Gratefully I can say that, because the person who can stay in the present pain of that situation might not be very stable). After about 2 months, one of my greatest caregivers, who had been a tremendous comfort to me, turned to platitudes. She said, while looking at my bald head “you’re lucky you have such a great shaped head”. I said “yes, lucky is the word I most often think of when I think about myself”, which led us both into a fit of laughter that dispelled the situation. What she was really saying, though, was “I can’t keep feeling your pain. It is too much, I feel totally helpless, and I have to protect myself by resorting to platitudes, those cliché’s that get me through the day”.
As I finished treatment, and moved on to the NED stage (no evidence of disease; i.e. the cancer cells are still there, we just can’t see them) the platitudes multiplied. I think the majority of advanced stage cancer patients agree that statements like “you’re my hero” or “keep fighting” or “you’re so much stronger then I would ever be” or “this will end” are annoying at best. Sometimes they actually make us crazy! There is post after post from my ovarian cancer online support group complaining about the callousness of these comments. Certainly, they are not thoughtful. But that is the very definition of a platitude. The people who utter them are often our most treasured loved ones, making them all the more painful to hear. They are painful because we know that once the platitudes begin we have lost authentic concern. The people uttering them are really saying “I can’t handle this anymore. I want to comfort you, but I just can’t feel this anymore”. This is a lonely time for the patient.
I watched this happen as I went through my treatment, and it continues today as I wonder if (more likely when) my cancer will come back. Most often I hear “that is over, move on” or “it won’t come back”, as if the speaker has an actual ability to foresee the future. Of course they don’t, they just can’t fully engage in the fear and uncertainty anymore.
Even as I knew this from my experience with cancer, I was still surprised when it happened with my divorce. In the beginning everyone gathered around and engaged with me, on a deep, emotional level . Most of my loved ones shared a time of great pain they had endured which, believe it or not, is a true comfort at a time like that. Nothing feels better, when exposed by the pain of infidelity and divorce, than admissions from others of times they were also betrayed, or felt they had failed. Now though, one and 1/2 years later, my people feel compelled to ask how I am and how the divorce is going, but they do it reluctantly. They have nothing more to offer me. They can’t stay centered in the pain of the situation the way I am forced to. So what I get now is “you will be so much better off in the end” or “you are so much better then you were a year ago” or “when all of this is done you’ll have a great life”. I would love to believe all this, but, in the end, these are nothing more than well-established cliché’s, designed to offer empathy when no comfort can be given. My loved ones want to, need to, believe that my life will be better, because the alternative is too painful for them to live with. I get it.
In an interesting twist, it is the people not as close to me that are able to offer real comfort. They are able to experience my pain and relate to it on a human level. This is not because they are better, or more empathic, but is simply a function of the amount of time they are required to engage in the experience. They have not spent as much time mired in the day to day drama as to be exhausted by the pain.
What, if anything, can we do with this information? As the one seeking comfort I use this information to understand what often feels like callous disregard from the people I love. I use it to remember that they can’t live in my pain, any more then I could live in their pain were situations reversed. For those uttering the platitude, and perhaps feeling ingenuous, or uncaring, you are not! Chances are you just can’t feel the pain any more. And truthfully, I’m grateful to you. Without you I’d never “man up”, I’d never stop feeling sorry for myself.
Knowing that my loved ones have to disengage to an extent has also forced me to find other sources of support. Therapy, yoga, meditation and support groups, all give me the “comfort” I need without the platitudes I’m so often given.
In the end, platitudes or no platitudes, I know who loves me and has my back, and I’m forever grateful for all they have to give me.