Platitudes: what you say when you can't think of anything nicer.
In this series of blogs, I’m going to break down the scripted sayings we’ve blurted out without thinking. They sound pretty effective and considerate when they’re said in the movies, during a sermon, or in metaphysical conferences. Secretly we want to believe these words, these seemingly perfect phrases of encouragement.
While working for the last forty-one years as a nurse—with the last fifteen in hospice—I’ve heard these supposed “pearls of wisdom” hundreds.̶ perhaps thousands ̶ of times. I used to just grin and bear them, until I had a patient who went ballistic on my student. He was right. She was wrong. After the sobbing and ego bruising, she learned a perfect lesson.
It went like this. Peter is a doctor, a brilliant surgeon in our hospital. He’s twenty-nine years old, just got married a year ago, but now has one of the worst, most aggressive brain cancers possible. There’s no getting around the reality that he is going to need heavy, mind-dumbing medications to keep him from having seizures, narcotics round-the-clock, and who-knows-why-they-work steroids. We’re talking maximum doses here.
My nursing student –I’ll call her Mary, is a senior. She’s earned the privilege of being assigned a complex patient in the ICU. As her instructor., My eyes and ears were always monitoring all my students; paranoid that they’d screw up and harm someone. By the way; I like my life and they work under my license.
“How are you feeling this morning, Peter?”
Obtunded, he answers “Better. I want to go home, It wouldn’t be fair to Glen. I spend all my time missing her.” Glen is his wife.
As Mary listens to his heart, she happily responds, “Oh don’t worry. Sometimes hardships like this will make your marriage stronger. God doesn’t give you what you can’t handle.”
Peter leaned forward, which made his head hurt. “What the fuck do you mean? How can you say that? Our life was perfectly beautiful̶ before cancer. You have no right to say that. Think before you speak !”
I heard him. As I went into the room, Mary was running out, crying. I gave Peter the “I’ll fix this” sign. He knew me; I’d worked with him.
“Talk to me. What’s going on in your imagination?” After a few minutes of witnessing her shoulder-heaving tears, I said to Mary, ”You were just given a wonderful gift. This may sound harsh, but would you tell a seven-year-old girl who’s being raped by her uncle the same thing? Do you realize how belittling and disempowering this statement is? I know you weren’t trying to be mean, but it is cruel and insensitive.”
“But, I thought he may look for some good in his life. Sometimes people rise above adversity and use the experience to better the world.”
“Good?’ There’s nothing ‘good’ in his life right now. Nothing. And it’s not for you impose your ideals on him. Until you are in that bed with the same disease, stop. Medical warmth will not serve him right now. He’s deeply grieving. Human-ness, compassion, and acceptance is what he needs. So get yourself together, apologize to him and thank him for the life lesson.”
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