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.