God only gives us what we are strong enough to handle.
God works in mysterious ways.
Stop living in the past.
Everything happens for a reason.
At least you … At least they… fill in the blank there.
These are some of the cliches that people face when they're grieving the loss of a loved one, through death.
I've surveyed a lot of what is out there online in terms of handholds and support for grieving people when they're encountering family, friends, acquaintances, ministers even, who are saying these things to them. And there is some decent material out there but so far to this moment I have not seen anything that's going to actually handle this kind of conversation. So that's why I feel like it's worth my time to document this.
There is a lot of information out there about what not to say to grieving people. However, you have to understand that most of the people that are saying these phrases are not out there looking for articles about what not to say to grieving people.
So like it or not, the locus of culture change really begins with us. Can we respond in a way that reframes the conversation in a better condition for ourselves?
You know, we can hope that those people that are rude or unthinking or difficult for us to relate to will go right out and read one of these articles - we could even literally send them one of these articles.
But the odds of them actually reading, comprehending and changing…. I think they're pretty low.
There's some handholds that I could definitely provide to people to deal with the situation.
Now, I need to clarify that I'm not writing this and recording this podcast for people who are very early in grief and who have never had a loss before.
Because to ask you to do more than what you're already doing is not kind. You have enough to handle, early on.
So while I know that it's painful for you to receive those comments…
I'm not asking you to do anything.
Who I am writing and recording for are people who have had multiple losses over time and are not newly grieving. I am asking those who have some grief experience to take up some of this mantle because they can. And they're still going to be in conversations with people where they hear these comments being made.
So, lets lay little bit of a foundation here. And get to know the terminology.
We will be discussing what is called a “thought-stopping cliché”.
First, we have to admit that - in general - cliches have a fraction of truth in them, otherwise they would not be repeated.
So there's a certain amount of truth that they provide us.
We’ve all experienced thought-stopping clichés, in their milder form, in daily life. We might say, “shit happens.” It’s a cliché. It “explains” everything. We don’t have to think too deeply about things.
And there certainly are times that cliches are actually helpful to us.
I tend to think of it as most helpful when you're in a crisis, times when so much is in turmoil that you cannot do any deeper thought or about what's happening.
Granted, most friends or family or acquaintances that are talking to you about your loss, they're not personally in a crisis when talking with you.
But, let’s be fair and honest and admit that we ourselves, when we're in a crisis, may benefit from a cliche spoken under our breath to ourselves.
That cliche may be the thing that anchors us enough to keep our head, to keep our mind from swirling about. At times when our metaphical boat is tipping too far over, the cliche actually helps us to right our boat, and sometimes that cliche could serve, even the duration of a lifetime.
So, lets discuss an example of that.
I was in a car accident - this is not the one where I almost died -it was a car accident when someone’s car glanced off of mine much later in my life.
It caused my foot injury. It’s why I can never wear cute shoes anymore.
Someone called paramedics thankfully, because I was not able to really move at that point.
I started repeating the Serenity Prayer. Reciting it kept me from going into a full blown panic attack or passing out.
I needed something to grab on to in order not to spin way out of control. So I used the Serenity Prayer at that time.
You may be familiar with it, you may not be. It basically says God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.
Now, me saying the Serenity Prayer to myself was a right and good and proper path to keep myself from going crazy. And in fact, I do think that the Serenity Prayer holds a lot of truth within it. It's a fairly reliable guide. Yet it is in within what we would call a cliche - it's something that's already pre-packaged that we can pull out and use. So cliches can be useful.
When a cliche is a problem is when it is rhetorically introduced as a substitute for an actual conversation.
This kind of cliche is often called a “thought stopping cliche.”
Maybe not all cliches are thought stopping, perhaps, sometimes they're thought-enhancing.
But the Deus Ex Machina. You know - that device from Greek tragedy plays where a seemingly unsolvable problem is suddenly resolved by a contrived arrival of GOD.
Maybe God, you know, does mysterious things or God, clearly wanted another angel in heaven or the various things that people pull out and say, are technically in the category of what we would call thought stopping cliches.
Now that phrase, thought stopping cliche, comes from a book from the 1960s called Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism by Robert Jay Lifton.
Lifton did a study where he identified the tactics used by Chinese communists to cause drastic shifts in one's opinion and one's personality to effectively brainwash American soldiers and making demonstrably false assertions. That book popularized this term thought stopping cliche. And it's a cliche that is a commonly used phrase or folk wisdoms that are often used to quell cognitive dissonance. And if anything is in the quality of cognitive dissonance -it’s the whole experience of death and grief, because we can't easily find a way to process it.
There's a tremendous amount of cognitive dissonance around the topics of death and grief. And we sometimes decide to adopt these cliches ourselves, they can provide us some amount of support to get through that crisis minute, or that crisis day or week or month or that year. And like I said, there are sometimes cliches that for some people will work their entire life. There are people for whom the cliche that God works in mysterious ways suits them for their entire life. And so we don't have any problem with that we're not here to change anybody's beliefs or their mindset, or anything else.
But for the person who is grieving, when these things get spoken over you, it actively works to shut down a conversation. And you may have, just prior, been sharing your thoughts and feelings.
It shuts down rapport between you and the person you were speaking to. It signals that the conversation is unacceptable for whatever reason - either it's too disturbing for your conversation mate, or it is not acceptable because it doesn't fit in the belief paradigm so that person, or they, they just don't like seeing you upset and they just want to shut that off and down. They may think that's even in your best interest to say that cliched phrase.
Whatever the cliche, when their use of it seems dismissing or justifying - you know you are encountering a thought stopping cliche.
And that's what makes it thought stopping. It's dismissing or it's justifying. Thought stopping cliche fails us because they neither offer any type of satisfying response either emotionally or intellectually.
So, here's a quote from Lifton which may not seem immediately applicable to grief, but we'll make it so in just a second.
He says “The most far-reaching and complex of human problems are compressed into briefly highly reductive definitive sounding phrases, they're easily memorized and easily expressed these become the start and finish of any ideological analysis.”
So, we can see that the reason why these phrases endure over time is because they're easy to memorize and they are easily expressed.
When people feel anxious or are looking for almost anything to say, they can easily pull these out of the reptilian part of their brain.
But because death and grief are some of the most complex problems that we encounter -that act of compressing the narrative and making it bite-size, making it highly reductive, — when it's one of the large mysteries we encounter — feels like the conversation cannot go any further. These cliches act like thought-stoppers, or semantic stopsigns, are words or phrases that discourage critical thought and meaningful ... They are (usually unconsciously) designed to shut up the listener/reader so we don’t have to feel either powerless to help or otherwise uncomfortable (or bored, or whatever.) But they also stifle the speaker/writer because those clichés prevent any further thought beyond the nearly automatic generation of a preprogrammed phrase. No genuine engagement between human beings actually occurs in the transaction but the “cliche speaker” goes about her business imagining that she’s reached out and been a friend.
It becomes the start and finish of the conversation. It justifies people to stop working on their feelings and thoughts.
So, what the problem is with this is that it's ending the conversation when the conversation, actually, is that a deflection point and it could actually begin a deeper conversation.
They may not even know that it has that effect. There's probably 1000 different ways that people are using this.
And let me just also put in here, as an aside, that it's ironic that calling something a thought stopping cliche can actually itself function as thought stopping cliche and can serve to effectively shut down a conversation - and that's not what we want to do. So, please note this is the irony of this kind of thing.
It's easier to just let the thought stopping cliche power down the conversation when we are early on in grief. I would not expect anybody to go to the mat here, right, but those of us that have been at grief for a long time - when we're in conversations with people and we start to hear these kinds of things come up - I think we need to start to speak out. This is where cultural change is going to come from. Most of these people are not going to go And, even then, it's not instructing them in any way, it's not giving them alternatives, it is just saying that's bad.
That kind of reaction is not really giving anybody any handholds. So, not only am I trying here to give you handholds, but I'm hoping that we can figure out a way for you to give them hand holds.
So, first off. If you want to let that conversation devolve, please do.
If you don't have it in you that day. That's fine. I understand that this is some of the harder things that we're doing. And so, please don't feel the need to do this, but if you want to make this conversation go further, lets give it a try…
First, remember that we're giving them respect. We're not respecting the thought stopping cliche that they just popped off on us.
But we are respecting them as a person.
We could say - “tell me more… tell me a personal example of how you have seen that in your own life in a way that relates to what I am saying.” and put the responsibility back in their hands.
That might or might not work. Depends on the person. And you might learn something about them that you can bond over. But I am not highly optimistic on that.
You may want to practice your response in a compassionate way.
Please rework these responses to your own manner of self expression…
You might say something to the effect of:
“This conversation is important to me, and you are important to me. I would like to talk further about this. Are you open to stay curious, and talk further about this, listening to what I'm saying, or is this not a good time for you to do that?
IF THEY EXPRESS OPENNESS YOU COULD THEN SAY…
What you just said to me is known in popular culture as a thought stopping cliche, and it has a great capacity for closing down conversations. I would like to keep the complexity of our conversation open. Can you talk with me further?
It is time to take back ground that you have lost. Rather than being quiet, we can work with our experts in our lives - counselors, therapists, ministers, mentors, trusted friends - to work on how to respond to people when they say these kinds of things to us.