Comfort Cliches as Defense Mechanism
For Ernest Becker, the idea of transference is central to understanding the human condition. We are fallible and finite, destined to death and our works are destined to destruction. In order to escape these bleak, nihilistic feelings, humanity much find a person or object to which we can transfer our fear of death. A parent, so to speak, who can quell our fears by the might of their power. Once we have this person or object in place, we can find stability in knowing that our life can live on through them.
God, for instance, is an object/person where humanity places their fears, believing that He can enable meaning for life, rendering death meaningless. So, we ignore the harsh reality of death and dying through our conception of God. God enables our defense mechanism of transference. Which, I might add, isn’t an evil per se, but — like everything — can have unintended and hurtful consequences.
The other factor, says Becker, in understanding the human condition is repression. Repression, in the context of death denial, means the attempt to gain power as an immortality project, thus repressing our weakness in mortality. We can repress our fears, our insecurities, our finitude by finding building our own everlasting kingdom or symbol. And once our kingdom is established, we can live on, albeit, through our legacy of might, thus repressing the mortality reality.
Repression and transference are opposites: one seeks power for oneself (Becker and others call this “Eros”), while the other seeks to embed oneself in another (Becker calls this “Agape”). But, the two come together in perfect unison when we greet the bereaved family at a viewing and say something that both attempts to repress the reality of death and make it all better through religious verbiage.
The reason comfort clichés can be so offensive is that those who are experiencing grief have had their walls of repression and transference broken. They are sensitive to the reality of the human condition and the loneliness that comes with it. And here you come, attempting to minimalize their fears and pain with a cliché that’s meant more so to help you feel good than give real encouragement to the family.
When people use comfort cliches, they are often more concerned with comforting themselves than comforting the bereaved.
And when you’re throwing clichés around as a defense mechanism, the bereaved will often know … and this, my friends, is what they hear:
I don’t want to hear your story. I don’t want your pains to become a part of my life. My life is painful enough. It doesn’t need to be disturbed by your story.
Man, I can’t imagine your pain. In fact, I might be able to imagine your pain. Honestly, I don’t want to imagine your pain.
Your grief is your grief; it’s not mine. I can’t walk this dark path with you. Honestly, though, when I think about it, I could walk this path with you, I just don’t want to. My life is good right now. I like my view and I don’t like yours.
Here, instead of hearing you out and walking with you, I’m going to make myself feel good. It’s important that I still see myself as a good person. I’m not heartless, so let me make you a cake and leave it at your door.
Let me send you a card.
Let give you a Bible verse.
I think I read something about how time heals grief. Let me tell you that.
Let me tell you how God has plans in this death.
I need to tell you something, give you something so that I can feel good about myself. I can’t feel guilty, so I’ll half-ass comfort you so that I can feel good while you feel like shit.
“God is love.”
“Time will heal your wounds.”
“You can get through this.”
“You are still young … you can have more children.”
Defense mechanisms. All. In the Spector of death, we use them too much.
If we want to be good communicators with those experiencing death and dying, we need to recognize both the repression and transference in our own lives and silence them for the sake of the bereaved. Instead of denying the reality of death, accept it and listen to the grieving who are walking through it. Instead of trivializing death as something “God has overcome”, be willing to enter the loneliness that comes with grief. Enter the holy space of holy Saturday, and – at the risk of your faith – accept doubt and silence as real possibilities.
If you can’t do this … if you’re unwilling to do this, if you’re set on denying the reality of death, then do yourself and the bereaved a favor, and just stay away from it and those it’s touching.