Platitudes – They Are No Comfort

Its something I think we’re all guilty of and yet, when we know better we do better.  Like before we battled infertility, we’d not think twice about asking somebody when they planned to start a family or why they didn’t have any children. Now, after my years of infertility, I’d never dream of asking a childless couple why they didn’t have kids, I simply know better, I’ve experienced those questions and felt their sting, now if I come across a childless couple I respectfully do not ask these questions and why? Because when we know better we do better.

I think the same thing applies with platitudes.  I know its hard to offer comfort without offering up a platitude, but I am going to try my damnedest in future to only offer up an “I’m sorry” and not include a platitude. Platitudes don’t offer comfort. If anything, they can become a source of more hurt. My very wise friend, Elize, sent me this text the other day:

Its hard to offer comfort without platitudes. I know what its like but I realized that most people are just trying what they think is best, they love you and want to be there for you but feel utterly helpless!

She’s so right. But at the same time, I think we/I need to be more careful/conscious of how I offer comfort in future. I will never again say “I know how you feel”. How could I? How could any of us? We all experience this journey so differently, we all experience pain so differently. How could somebody who’s never had a miscarriage know what I’m feeling? How could somebody who’s never been pregnant know what it feels like to get the wonderful news only to have it be short lived and lost in a matter of days. How can somebody who’s never experienced repeated miscarriages possibly understand what it feels like?

The simple answer is – they can’t. Nobody can possibly know what its like to have walked a mile in my shoes, anymore than I can know what its like to walk a mile in theirs, nobody can know what its like to be into their 8th year of trying, have had countless timed cycles, 3 IUI cycles and 5 IVF cycles and still have suffered through 7 early losses. Nobody can know my personal pain anymore than I can know anyone’s elses pain. I don’t know what its like to experience a second or third trimester miscarriage, I don’t know the horror of a still birth, I don’t know what its like to have been trying for a few years and never to have experienced a positive pregnancy test.

All I know is my own personal pain. I’ve learnt that pain is pain, its all relative at the end of the day, it relates directly to our personal experiences and how we experience that pain will be in direct correlation to what we’re going through in our lives at that time. So nobody has the right to judge anybody elses pain or to believe that they are any more entitled to their pain than someone elses.

So all I can say to my infertility sisters is this? I sympathize with you pain. I don’t know exactly what you’re going through, but I can recognize your pain and be saddened by it.

Edited to state that this post is by no means a slap on the wrist or finger pointing exercise at anyone in blog land, but rather  my thoughts after “words of wisdom” and comfort from people in my life who have tried to comfort me by offering me platitudes.

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  • Reply Rach

    Shaz, so very very well said. I wrote a post similar to this on my old blog and was called out over it because how dare I say that NO ONE else could understand or know my pain? Why did I think I was so special?

    The simple truth is, we may think we know what it is to feel anothers pain but in reality we don’t. And thats fine. You can still sympathise with someone without having to say that you know how they feel.

    I have in recent comments I’ve left on various blogs regretted typing the words I’ve left, suggesting I know how the commentators feel when I know damn well that I have NO idea what a stillbirth feels or a 2nd trimester loss, sure I’ve been kicked in the guts 5 times now and have slogged at this for 10 years but my losses aren’t the same as anyone elses, even yours, even though we’ve been through similar things but that yet aren’t the same!


    October 20, 2009 at 7:02 am
  • Reply Esperanza

    Thank you very much for this post. You’re right that I do not know your pain, and I hope I would never proport to. And if I have, I truly am sorry. I have gone through so much less than you and it was heartbreaking, so I can only get a glimpse of an understanding of what you’ve been through and even then I’d be missing the point. Thank you for reminding us to only say what is true, even when that means we have to think about it more. I truly am sorry for your loss.

    October 20, 2009 at 7:33 am
  • Reply Hela

    Stunning post and I agree with it all… your friend Elize is a wise lady!

    October 20, 2009 at 7:37 am
  • Reply Abs

    Very well said Sharon. I can think back to numerous times where I’ve said the wrong thing even when my intentions were good. I do recognise your pain and the pain of others on this journey but I completely agree, we are all unique and so is our pain and our story. That is what makes this such a lonley road to travel. Nobody can ever feel exactly how we feel or know exactly how deep our individual pain goes. I think people try to offer up platitudes because saying sorry never feels like enough, saying sorry can never do any of these awful situations any justice. ((Hugs))

    October 20, 2009 at 8:57 am
  • Reply Tanya

    Hugs your in my thoughts.

    October 20, 2009 at 9:07 am
  • Reply Adel

    So right! I agree and know that to platitude is a natural thing humans do, but a comment at the wrong time can make me want to hurt someone severly bad at that time!

    Thinking of you Shaz!

    October 20, 2009 at 9:33 am
  • Reply Lea White

    What a great post! My Dale Carnegie instructor taught us not to say “I understand” but “I hear you”. I hear you means I am listening, not that I can ever comprehend or pretend to understand what what you are feeling. I hear you is also a good way to say when you might not agree what somebody else is saying (but in saying that I agree with what you are saying in your post 🙂 ).

    And even when the journeys might seem similar, it is never the same!

    Sharon, you continue to inspire me and I continue to learn a lot from you, so thank you!

    I do hope to meet you sometime in the future.

    October 20, 2009 at 9:35 am
  • Reply Gwen

    I know what you mean, and I know I’ve been guilty of it (as have we all). We think that because we’re fellow-sufferers we have a free pass and we’re incapable of being offensive or hurtful.

    Usually I find that people are most likely to wound inadvertently when they are trying to “fix” things for you. When you are in pain, the truth is that nothing can possibly help, and it’s infuriating to be offered glib advice because it negates the depth of the pain. It isn’t so much what is said that matters, but the idea that your pain can be that easily cured that hurts, because it demonstrates exactly how little the person understands. To make it worse, sometimes you get the distinct feeling that they’re trying to buck you up because it’s inconvenient and unpleasant for them to have to deal with your grief.

    I do think, though, that it is possible to “know” your pain without necessarily understanding it. What I mean by that is knowing what emotional pain feels like physically – the feeling of tearing inside, the feeling of your heart breaking. In this sense I do think that I can feel or know someone’s pain without necessarily understanding it, and if I’ve ever said “I know how you feel”, to you or anybody else, this is what I’ve meant.

    October 20, 2009 at 10:31 am
  • Reply Sharon

    Gwen, I LOVE your comment! You have managed to so eloquently make exactly the point I was trying to get to!

    October 20, 2009 at 10:34 am
  • Reply Susan Shepherd

    Hey Sharon,

    I sincerely apologize if I ever came across as insensitive. Though I have never been in your situation directly, I do know what it’s like to have my heart ripped in two. My first born son was still- born after carrying him and going through 24 hours of labor, then a c-section.. dead. To make a long story short, I have spent the next 20 years of my life crying over him.

    I am so sorry for your pain and suffering. I have a blogged on this subject too, but you wrote it better than I did. 🙂

    October 20, 2009 at 12:36 pm
  • Reply Sian

    Very well said Shaz! Thinking of you.

    October 20, 2009 at 12:46 pm
  • Reply Invivo

    I suppose the magic words will always remain: I’m so sorry. Some things cannot be made better with more than those three little words. It is what it is. It’s also a vouch of confidence in a person’s ability to resolve their own pain.

    October 20, 2009 at 2:07 pm
  • Reply Jenny

    I guess people just want to fix things. It’s human nature. I really wish I was the one with the magic wand that could make this all go away just like I could rid the world of crappy parents, paedophiles, poverty and help the old blind guy at my local spar. But I am not and nobody like that exists. I think the only thing to say is that there are a gazillion people who clearly care about you and your feelings and will support you – as best they can – through whatever comes next.

    October 20, 2009 at 2:16 pm
  • Reply Stacey

    So true, and well said! It is so frustrating to hear those when you are in such pain. Yet, sometimes I know I’ve resorted to them when I feel at a loss for words. I hope that I’ve become much more aware of that at this stage of my life. I have certainly learned that you never truly KNOW how someone else feels. Even when you’ve had some shared experiences (as you and I have), it’s never exactly the same, and people handle things in different ways.

    I’m still shocked sometimes by what others say. Just last weekend I had a friend (who suffered from RPL before having her 3 children) use the old line, “You can take one of my kids!” I was speechless. Sometimes it’s best to say nothing. I think you can’t go wrong with a simple I’m sorry, I care, or I’ll pray for you (but only if you really are, really do, and really will).

    Thinking of you, my friend.

    October 20, 2009 at 8:58 pm
  • Reply SCY

    Hmmm, I agree 150% that platitudes don’t offer comfort, but sometimes it’s all people can offer. Our pain confuses them and confounds them – and in times when people cannot fathom what the frick to say to someone who is so clearly hurting, a platitude seems a safe bet. Not always nice to hear, but I do think they mostly come from a caring and good place. Ineloquently expressed? Certainly.

    Re the “I know how you feel” it is never easy to say that one person knows how another feels but I think here it’s more a case of the word being used in a general term. They will never “know exactly” how you feel (as you say only you can ever know that) but they can empathise, sympathise and in terms of heartbreak completely understand the pain one feels… which is what I think they mean by saying I know how you feel.

    I’ll always try and just say sorry, or at least if I’ve offered a platitude or a “I know how you feel” try and apoligise for it…


    October 21, 2009 at 7:01 pm
  • Reply Lisa

    What you said here is the real crux of the matter:
    “[N]obody has the right to judge anybody elses pain or to believe that they are any more entitled to their pain than someone elses.” I agree, absolutely.

    However, I think that your emphasis on the word “know” throughout your post, is so narrowly focused upon the fact that no one who has not actually experienced your exact pain on top of, and relative to, every single, unique life experience you have had. That would be impossible, therefore the word “know” would be invalid in practically every situation where someone is trying to identify with you and express their sympathy.

    Through engaging in active listening (100% focused attention, including your use of words, your body language, the tone of your voice, etc.) and looking at your experience “as if” they stood in your shoes, and relating it to their own pain, fear, frustration, disappointment, struggle and/or grief in an experience at the same level of loss, they are making a great effort and intention to understand you. It’s empathy, rather than sympathy. It will quite often come from a very sincere space. I can’t imagine that you will get anything good out of rigidly holding people to their literal use of words, when their sentiment causes them to trip over their own tongues. Not every person will possess your command of emotional lagnuage. If you take affront with every person who wants to put out a hand, you could be pushing away a true opportunity to add this person to your support network.
    By the way, I am not talking about encounters with insensitive, superficial, unsympathetic or even bitchy people. Additionally, in my support group, I am careful to make sure that there are never competitive conversations about whose infertility or miscarriage experience or pain is worse. It can happen when someone feels they are not being heard, but we are all there for the same reason.
    Thanks for presenting such a thought-provoking blog.

    October 23, 2009 at 10:54 am
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