By Jennifer Hill Buehrer LMSW
I’ve been writing this column for almost a year now. It’s hard to believe, just like it’s hard to believe that we’re still doing all of this. Sometimes I have amusing insights to share here, and sometimes the subjects are so serious that there’s really no good way to lighten them up. My goal has been to give a voice to you – what I hear and discuss with you – and to shed light on the things we’re all struggling with through this pandemic. We’ve dealt with and discussed frustrations, losses, pains, hopes, gratitude… it goes on and on. I do this because I’m a fan of language who naturally needs to emote, and writing is the easiest and most effective way for me to share and try to help. At the same time, words are not a substitute for real connection, and that’s something that demands pause.
Most of us have been in situations where we encounter platitudes – those expressions that have been used so often that they don’t carry much meaning anymore. In the world of health care, and sickness, it happens a lot: “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle.” “Everything happens for a reason.” “He’s in a better place.” “Thoughts and prayers.” The point is words in tough situations should have power. And when we recite things like these phrases that tend to ring hollow from overuse, it may leave us feeling like we’ve offered something meaningful while leaving the recipient of the platitude feeling even more empty and alone. It can feel like it’s just a substitute for the effort it takes to really connect. All this is understandable as we desperately search for the right words to comfort people we care about. Even those of us who do this for a living struggle sometimes to offer real, caring dialogue instead of platitudes.
Spoiler alert: this is one of those more serious topics than some of my other articles. Last weekend a dear friend of almost 30 years ended his life. As is often true, it was completely out of the blue. He was handsome, incredibly talented, and loved by so many people in so many places… but for whatever reason he felt alone, clearly. He was savvy at keeping in contact with friends, sending creative Christmas and birthday cards that carried all kinds of personal touches. He had the best singing voice I’ve ever heard and would post videos online sometimes of him singing – especially at the holidays – and friends like me just ate it up. He lived in North Carolina and I hadn’t seen him since the pandemic began. I’d been thinking of visiting him this spring… I just hadn’t gotten to telling him that yet. And of course, I’ll carry that with me forever. It’s not that I think the anticipation of a visit from me would have rescued him from the depths of his despair. But maybe the thought that he was on someone’s mind, that his company could be a destination in itself, would have made him pause. Maybe I could have sensed something in his voice when we talked on the phone. Making the smallest connection could have made a difference. I don’t blame myself at all; I just think that when someone comes to mind, I need to let them know that. The beauty of our technology is that it can make it so easy to do – to shoot a text to someone who’s on your mind or call them from anywhere.
My challenge to you, and to myself, is to stop for a second when tempted to offer an overused phrase to someone in distress and instead try to choose words that mean something – words that come from the heart of the speaker and not from the Book of Platitudes. You never know what that sincere connection can do for someone. And ultimately what it can do for you.
Jennifer Buehrer, LMSW is a palliative care social worker at St. Joseph Mercy Ann Arbor.