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Well-Meaning but Cliche Advice & What to Say Instead

Holley Hyler is an IT consultant and published freelance writer living in New York.


Advice: "Distract Yourself and Stay Busy"

When I lost someone close to me, many times, people offered me the advice, "Distract yourself and stay busy." They told me this even when I didn't ask for advice or wasn't directly speaking about my grief. Sometimes this advice can sound like, "Get over it and force yourself to do things."

It felt like people were telling me not to honor the memory of the person I lost. It felt like they thought it was hopeless too, so the only answer was to drown myself in life and work. It felt so depressing, and it did nothing to help me feel better. It only made me feel guilty for not wanting to do anything.

In the case of grief where a person has died or isn't in someone's life anymore somehow, maybe "distract yourself" is not the best suggestion to give. I found that a more spiritual approach helped me. I do believe in an afterlife and that our loved ones are very much with us in spirit, no matter what is going on in the apparent world around us. However, not everyone holds this belief, so talking about this may not work for them. I feel it is a good idea to encourage people to talk about their loved ones and share their memories if they feel comfortable with doing so. It takes a certain level of comfort with vulnerability on both sides, so if the comfort isn't there, perhaps the best thing to do is listen or ask questions about what they tell you.

If someone says, "I miss my mom so much," ask them to elaborate. "When do you have this feeling? Is it at specific times, or is it constant?" You could even ask them if they can think of anything in the present moment that might be soothing to them. It's not so much about the question as it is the way you ask it. Ask yourself if it's kind and gentle. Does it have the potential to make the other person feel worse or like they're not doing enough, or handling their emotions "incorrectly"? If so, then it may be better not to say it.

Grief can be extremely difficult to handle, because it is not linear. It can come up for a person whether their loss occurred one week or fifty years ago. And when it comes, maybe people would welcome a distraction, but it can be difficult to physically and mentally involve oneself in other activities when the emotions are so intense. In those cases, mindless distractions where the person needn't exert much effort might be best, but keep in mind that everyone responds to and handles grief differently.


Advice: "Just Go Out and Meet Someone New"

This advice is most commonly given to a person who is struggling with a break-up. I have also heard it used in cases of extreme depression and grief in situations where they are dearly missing a person who was once involved in their life.

I feel that this is not the best advice because it is not addressing the root of the issue. This is similar to "distract yourself." After a significant break-up or letdown in a relationship, we can find ourselves caught in a whirlwind of thoughts, confusion, and missing that person who is no longer a part of our lives. If the pain is still raw, going out and meeting a new person probably is not going to be helpful.

In my case, when I was going through heartbreak, meeting new people only made me think even more of the person or people I missed. I noticed how unlike them these new people were, and I often felt strange and out of place in new social situations. What did soothe me was getting out into nature by myself or going to the bookstore to get a coffee and browse through the shelves. In a sense, I was distracting myself, but I was not looking to other people to provide the distractions. I gave myself time and space for private contemplation but not to a point where I became completely absorbed by or always wallowed in it.

If we do turn to new people after a break-up or falling out with someone, sometimes we can end up manifesting exactly the same hurtful situations with them if we have not addressed the grief on our own. If we have not gotten to the root of our pain and given ourselves enough time to heal, we can repeat cycles. If you know someone going through this situation, or if it is you, try being a source of support by listening without judgment and encouraging activities or books that can help with staying healthy and balanced.

Listeners and Fixers - Which One Are You?

Some of you reading this might fall into one of two categories when it comes to people sharing with you what ails them. There are listeners, and there are fixers. Sometimes, people can be both. Listeners tend to sit back and let the other person fully explain what's on their mind, and they rarely jump in to give suggestions or provide their opinions. Instead, they keep the conversation more about the other person and their experience. They may ask questions, but these tend to be aimed at helping the speaker gain more of an understanding of him/herself.

Fixers, on the other hand, try to offer up solutions to the problem. Getting the problem to go away for the other person is their main focus, instead of delving more deeply into the workings of the other person's heart and mind. While fixers can be well-meaning, sometimes they can come off as insensitive or not willing to listen to what the other person has to say. We can all be both of these or vacillate between the categories, depending on who it is we're talking to. For instance, if I am talking to someone I see as more experienced than me in a certain topic, I would listen. If I am talking to someone who is facing a certain problem for the first time when I have faced it many times, I would try to help them fix it.

In this article, I will explore some of the solutions that tend to be offered up to a person suffering from grief, depression, or high sensitivity, and explain how these can be misinterpreted and what could be offered instead.

Please note that I am not a counselor or trained in mental health, but I do identify as an HSP (Highly Sensitive Person) and have struggled with depression and grief myself. I have also had friends who confided in me about suicidal thoughts. This article is based on my own experience, but I know it comes up for others too since the advice offered for my situations is common.

What To Do If You've Been Given This Advice

If someone has given you either of these lines in response to you attempting to share and be vulnerable with them, please know that they probably had the best intentions available to them when they offered you this advice. We are all human and do not like to see one another suffer, but sometimes our feelings of helplessness or not knowing how to receive another's vulnerability can invoke feelings of frustration or annoyance. In exasperation, maybe someone has told you to "get over it" or keep busy, because they didn't know what else to say. They didn't know how to help you, and they felt more annoyed by that helpless feeling than by anything you have shared or felt.

The best place to look for advice is within yourself. When a suggestion from another person bothers you, it is an indication that their answer is conflicting with the truth that exists inside you. Sometimes we cannot be aware of the truth, if not for our more unpleasant emotions. Rather than exerting your energy to disagree or argue with this person, use it to fully feel your feelings and understand what they are trying to tell you. You innately know how to heal yourself.

© 2019 Holley Hyler


Holley Hyler (author) from Upstate New York on March 02, 2020:

Thank you, Bushra!

Anya Ali from Rabwah, Pakistan on March 01, 2020:

Good read - thought-provoking!

Holley Hyler (author) from Upstate New York on June 23, 2019:

Thank you, Dina, for reading and leaving such a lovely comment! I'm glad that it seems everything I wanted to convey got across. :-)

Dina AH from United States on June 21, 2019:

Holley, this is powerful advice particularly because you don't necessarily suggest that the advice-givers have malicious intent. Different people respond to others' pain differently. I want to piggy-back off of something you mention: sometimes, the questions we ask have subtext. I do this a lot. I ask a question and I keep hoping and praying to get a response that will soothe me. Self-sabotage is sometimes at play in these moments and in the dynamics of these relationships. I was beaming when you wrote about reaching within and searching for the reasons behind our discomfort when we hear advice. You're right. Some advice just doesn't ring true to us, to our very own nature and Truth. It's scary to do, but trusting ourselves and our instincts is also a good way to not be swayed by advice. Wonderful article, as always. :)

dashingscorpio from Chicago on April 22, 2019:

As a child whenever I felt some perceived injustice had occurred in my life I would tell my mother and she would often say:

"Life is not fair!"

Upon hearing that sometimes my eyes would well up with tears of anger. It was not until many years later I came to understand what she was really telling me was to "get over it" and "move on".

She didn't want me to allow whatever it was to imprison me.

There is a very popular "Serenity Prayer" by Reinhold Niebuhr.

"God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

Courage to change the things I can,

And wisdom to know the difference."

That "prayer" is really about putting things in perspective.

Oftentimes when tragedy occurs someone says something along the lines of: "Our prayers and thoughts go out to the family...."

Others may say: "I can't imagine what you're going through...."

"I know there are no words that can ease your pain..."

After a while everything sounds like a canned cliché response. Many of us (choose) to withdraw from our friends and family because we actually do NOT want to be "cheered up". The danger of course has to do with the length of time one chooses grieve while "shrinking" their world. The more "alone" and misunderstood someone feels the more likely they are to fall into a "deep depression".

Some people even consider suicide after pushing everyone away.

It's a challenge for you as the individual to know how much is too much time to shut down and ignore everything else around you.

Parents who have lost a child often ignore the presence of their remaining children! They may have as well lost all of their children!

The reality is the world didn't stop turning and the sun rose as usual.

When my two best friends' mothers died over the course of years I naturally sympathized with them but it was not until (my own mother) died that I truly had an inkling of what it was like to lose a parent.

As one motivational speaker once said:

"Just because it happened to YOU doesn't make it interesting."

Everyday millions of people die around the world and their loved ones grieve and bury them. All the while millions of other people are laying on beaches on tropical islands sipping umbrella cocktails.

Each and everyone of us will receive visits from the messenger of misery multiple times throughout our lives. That's just life.

Like it or not we actually (need people) to help us put things in perspective in order to get to the other side.

Generally speaking the "timing" of their advice is our real issue.

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