The “Right” Words Are Not Usually The Easy Ones

In my community, a little girl has just died of cancer. We are grieving, and her family – her parents, her little sister – is devastated.  All over Facebook, people have been posting words of sympathy and love.  Neighbors held a candlelight vigil.  The community is rallying.

But last night, when I read the words of this heart-broken mother, I was reminded how lazy we are with words.  She said that when people tell her Alyssa is no longer suffering, she doesn’t take comfort in that idea.  I completely understand.  The pain is too large. The ache too profound. The loss too real to find comfort in much.

We say these things – “She’s in a better place.” “She’s with the angels.” “She’s not suffering anymore.” – because we mean them, yes, but also because they are easy. They give us a modicum of comfort because we feel pain and want to find solace.  It’s natural, but for a family blown down by loss, these words are lazy; they do not speak to the hollow, roaring shout that is the loss of someone dear and close to you. They do not – I can only imagine – bring comfort at all to a mother and father and little sister who has lost a beautiful presence that they know will never return.


“Hard as a rock.” “Like threading a needle.” “Sick as a dog.” These cliches creep into our writing like grubs. They eat away at the power of our words by replacing fresh language with expressions that, unless modified or amplified, leech off meaning and replace it with banality.

There is, perhaps, nothing more harmful to the power of words than a cliche. It reveals our laziness, our unwillingness to find the new phrase, the true expression that cuts to the core of what we intend. It shows us to be looking for the easy way rather than the right way.

When Mom died, the only words I wanted from loving friends were the ones came in warm hands and casserole dishes, the ones that remembered the way Mom could slice the awkward silence of a room with the sarcastic wit, the ones that said, “I’m so, so sorry.”  No cliches. No easy comfort. Just presence.
May the Divers feel that presence today and in the many hollow days to come.
When have cliches hurt you as a person? As a writer?
  • Jamie Kocur

    I’ve found that “I’m sorry” is the best thing to say to someone hurting. No more, no less.

    Years ago, when I had to say goodbye to my kids from the African Children’s Choir (I had been with them for 15 months and had become like a mother to them) it was the hardest thing I had ever had to do. I shared my hurt with someone close, and received a hurtful, “Life goes on.” I was stunned. I shared the same hurt with someone else, who responded with a very different phrase: “Thanks for sharing.” That person turned out to be my future husband. :)

    • Andi

      Smart man, that husband of yours. Yes, just “I’m sorry.” A smile. A tear. Those all work so much better than a cliche. Thanks for reading, Jamie.

  • Wendy

    As usual, Andi, you say this so well. I agree. I think people use cliches because they really do not know what to say and they feel like they need to say something. When I was going through years of infertility and my heart felt broken, the worst thing people said to me was “Relax and when you stop trying it will happen.” It never did happen, even after I had given up treatment and trying, and accepted I would never conceive a child. What I really wanted people to say was, “I’m sorry you are hurting.” And give me a hug. One day I read Elizabeth McCracken’s amazing book An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination – perhaps the best book written about loss I have ever read. She talked about how hard it was to engage with others who often said the wrong things without realizing it. If you have not read this memoir, I highly recommend it. A beautiful book.

    • Andi

      I don’t know why people feel like they have to “fix” things by saying platitudes that are, actually, lies. I’m so sorry that happened to you, Wendy.

      Thanks for the book recommendation. I haven’t read it, but I’m putting it on the list right now. :)

  • Brett

    Thanks for writing this (and I also appreciate the previous comments). I was a chaplain intern at a hospital for a while during seminary. I was always so worried about foot-in-mouth disease. This made me sit on my tush and listen–mostly out of fear rather than wisdom. Turns out it was usually the best thing. I still fret when I’m reading a ‘Carepages’ thing or when I see a Facebook status about one of these tragedies. It’s helpful to know that the best thing is simply ‘Thank you for sharing’ or ‘I’m so sorry for what you’re experiencing.’

    • Andi

      Thanks for your perspective as a chaplain, Brett. Yep, we are scared in the face of pain so we blurt out anything, I guess. Too bad we don’t all, as you learned, just listen. Thanks for reading and sharing.

  • Tammy Helfrich

    I am so saddened to hear about the loss of the young girl. There are just no words. We can be so quick with our words to try to say something, when usually there is nothing you can say. “I’m sorry” was actually one of the phrases I didn’t like when my Dad passed away. Of course, I was 14 and my thought was “what do you have to be sorry about?”, so I definitely like the “I’m sorry for loss, or I’m sorry you are hurting” better.

    I read a post after the CT shootings that talked about how hurtful the phrases we use can be. I know I’ve been guilty of using the ones about them being in heaven and angels, and I realize now that I am a parent, I would not want to hear that either. Having lost multiple people in my life, the best thing I think we can do is to just be there for the person, let them know that you care, and do things for them. Don’t wait for them to call you (they won’t), and just do something for them out of love.

    • Andi

      I hear what you say, Tammy, and I can’t imagine what it must be like to lose a parent when you were so tender.

      I wish, though, that we didn’t always equate someone saying “I’m sorry” with their claiming some sort of responsibility. For me, it’s an expression of empathy. . . . hmmm, maybe there’s a blog in this. :)

  • Bonnie House

    One of my less favorite Bible verse is “All things work good to those who love the Lord.” Don’t get me wrong, it is a great verse. However when you have just loss a baby or three grandbabies through death it is not a comforting verse. Like you a hug and no words are the best comfort.

    • Andi

      Oh yes, I love that verse when I choose it, but when other people sling it like a bandaid, it can feel like a slap. I would hug you now if I could, Bonnie.

  • Becca

    Our natural human compassion and empathy make us want to fix things for people who are in pain, and in the face of completely unfixable grief I think we’re simply dumbfounded. As so many others have said in the comments, I think “I’m so sorry for your loss” are the most soothing words we can offer. I know when I’ve been in the midst of grief, it helps to know someone cares in that way.

    • Andi

      You are so right, Becca. We do want to fix it – we want to make it better but also, I think, make the pain go away. Yes, knowing someone is there – that is what matters.

  • Larry The Deuce

    Aren’t these words, these cliches, crutches that help us, whether it is with comforting a grieving mother or daughter, or to help us through the hard paragraph we write? Too often we really just don’t want to do the hard work it takes to comfort or write something meaningful.

    • Andi

      Indeed, Larry, I do think they are crutches, our lazy way of hobbling through without effort. Thanks for that connection.

  • Brock

    Great words my friend. I havelearned that the best words are the ones that go unspoken! God gave us to ears and one mouth for a reason!

    • Andi

      Yes, presence without words is a powerful thing. Thanks for reading, Brock.

  • Bruce

    The thoughts in the article are so good and accurate! I have been in pastoral ministry for over 30 years and have heard it all. I teach people who are wanting to console others to never answer questions the bereaved aren’t asking. “They are in heaven doing…” Who knows for certain what someone is doing in Gods presence other than God. I have learned with children who think in very defined ways to have a response that is truthful but never assures a certainty on my part. “God needed your Mommy for a flower in his garden.” I usually choke on that one.

    Let me say all of our greeting card theologies become very hollow when you are staring at a coffin above a hole in the ground looking at a row of blank hurting faces. More than anything I seek to assure ( if I know their faith experience) “They are with the Lord”. It was adequate for Paul and enough for me.