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Platitudes can hurt people in pain as much as their illness or loss.

Artist Emily McDowell has a series of "empathy cards" to send to people who are suffering. McDowell has an unusual talent for saying what a lot of people experiencing pain are thinking. Among her more popular cards are those that announce:

  • I wish I could take away your pain. Or at least take away the people who compare it to the time their hamster died.
  • If this is God's plan, then God is a terrible planner.
  • When life hands you lemons, I won't tell you the story of a friend who died of lemons.
  • One more chemotherapy session down! Let's celebrate with whatever doesn't taste disgusting.
  • Please let me be the first person to punch the next person who tells you that everything happens for a reason.

Well-worn platitudes recited by sometimes-friends can be at the least annoying but sometimes downright painful. That's because a pollyanna attitude that everything is OK undermines one of the premiere coping skills of people in pain:

  • When people who have chronic, serious illness or who have endured painful personal loss manage to be cheerful, it's usually because they focus on the things in their lives they truly value, not because they minimize their negative experiences.

Sometimes a long experience of pain shapes someone into a person of remarkable resilience, courage, and purpose. It's never just "part of God's plan" that someone finds opportunities to grow even during pain.

Depression Causes Pain, But Pain Also Causes Depression

It's not unusual for people who experience chronic pain to be depressed. That's not because they have negative attitudes or they fail to see the silver lining in their cloud. Depression follows chronic pain as dopamine and serotonin become depleted. Pain's effect on the brain are themselves depressing. Pain can also lead to anxiety, as the sufferer worries about its effect on the ability to carry out everyday functions.

If you really want to help someone with their depression, don't give them a little lecture on keeping a positive attitude, help them with some tangible, daily task. Relieve anxiety by running an errand, walking the dog, doing the dishes, or helping out with the laundry. Be present without need to discuss illness. Your friend won't forget he or she is sick if you spend the time you have with them talking about something else, or maybe doing something fun.

A Positive Attitude Isn't Fatalism

A lot of what people who aren't sick and haven't experienced loss regard as "positive attitude" is really fatalism. Telling someone that their suffering or loss is part of God's plan isn't positive. It's fatalistic. After all, what can you possibly do if it's the will of the Supreme Being that you suffer? Of course, the real advantage of this kind of advice accrues to the person giving it. If you really believe that another person's suffering is fated, then you they can't do anything about it, and you don't have to, too bad, I'm OK, you're suffering, what's mine is mine and what's yours is yours.

Continue reading after recommendations

  • Duong MT, Cruz RA, King KM, Violette HD, McCarty CA. Twelve-Month Outcomes of a Randomized Trial of the Positive Thoughts and Action Program for Depression Among Early Adolescents. Prev Sci. 2015 Oct 21. [Epub ahead of print]. PMID: 26486632.
  • Pfaeffli Dale L, Whittaker R, Jiang Y, Stewart R, Rolleston A, Maddison R. Text Message and Internet Support for Coronary Heart Disease Self-Management: Results From the Text4Heart Randomized Controlled Trial. J Med Internet Res. 2015 Oct 21
  • 17(10):e237. doi: 10.2196/jmir.4944. PMID: 26490012 .
  • Photo courtesy of ladydragonflyherworld: www.flickr.com/photos/ladydragonflyherworld/6287757862/
  • Photo courtesy of ssoosay: www.flickr.com/photos/ssoosay/6158888867/
  • Photo courtesy of ladydragonflyherworld: www.flickr.com/photos/ladydragonflyherworld/6287757862/

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