‘Thoughts and prayers’

words: Dr Bill Webster, Grief Journey

When we are grieving, it is good to know that someone is thinking, and even praying, for you. But sadly, these good sentiments are often conveyed in an idiom that has become somewhat hackneyed. I’m referring to the oft-used expression: ‘thoughts and prayers’.

This phrase has been popularised by politicians and public officials offering condolences after any publicly notable event – a deadly natural disaster, or the mass shootings and acts of terror that have plagued our world in the last couple of decades.

Thoughts and prayers are good. But if they are not accompanied by actions, they seem meaningless and hollow. When these public tragedies occur, people demand to know what can be done to prevent them from happening. Things could change if those in government had the will, but often influential political lobbies make inaction the norm. But hey, we have to do something, so we are sending our ‘thoughts and prayers’.

The term ‘semantic saturation’ is used to describe the phenomenon in which a word or phrase is repeated so often it loses its meaning. It becomes something ridiculous, a jumble of letters that feels foreign on the tongue and reads like gibberish on paper.

‘Thoughts and prayers’ has reached that full semantic saturation.

The catchphrase has gone from being a sincere expression of condolence to almost laughable. Comedians, cartoonists, media companies and everyday social media users have turned the phrase on its head. Political satire isn’t new, but sarcasm has become the first response to expressions of ‘thoughts and prayers’.

After 14 people were killed in a shooting in San Bernardino, California, the New York Daily News, known for its bold, attention-grabbing headlines, ditched the wordplay. In response to tweets by four prominent Republican leaders offering ‘thoughts and prayers’, the headline screamed: ‘God isn’t fixing this.’

In one highly-shared image that circulated after another shooting, ‘thoughts and prayers’ is imprinted on the side of a garbage truck, seen discharging its load of trash at the dump. Another shows the inside of an empty van. ‘Excellent news,’ the caption reads, ‘the first truckload of your thoughts and prayers has just arrived.’

These expressions from political leaders seem cruelly hollow if paired with legislative indifference. It is a joke when our collective reaction to mass murder, terror or tragedy is to repeat the same platitude. People are not making jokes about prayer, they are making a joke of the phrase, because, all too soon, it begins to feel empty, even dismissive.

But while pointing out the meaninglessness of this worn out, trite cliché, let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water.

Religious thinkers and spiritual leaders have sought to reclaim the phrase, seeing how its meaning has diminished and been ridiculed when trotted out after tragedies and gun violence.

After one high-profile shooting, the Dalai Lama tweeted: “Although I am a Buddhist monk, I am sceptical that prayers alone will achieve world peace. We need instead to be enthusiastic and self-confident in taking action.”

Pope Francis has regularly called on followers to intertwine their prayer and their works: “Prayer that doesn’t lead to concrete action toward our brothers is a fruitless and incomplete prayer. Prayer and action must always be profoundly united.”

When a good friend tweeted me a few weeks ago that I had been “in his thoughts and prayers”, he didn’t stop there. He followed up: “Which day next week would you be free to have lunch?” That meant a lot because, while I appreciated knowing he was thinking and praying, he was specific in wanting to do something hands-on.

Grieving people very quickly get sick of words that are not accompanied by actions. The ‘thoughts and prayers’ strategy isn’t working on a national or international level, nor effective in the lives of individuals touched by tragedy and grief, because it is based on a delusion.

The delusion is not that prayers are ineffective or kind thoughts are unnecessary. Rather, the misconception is that by offering these sentiments alone we are doing enough.

I think I can safely say grieving people want and need more. We need to somehow help alleviate the situation, whether by national political action or ongoing acts of individual kindness and support.

Think about it. Pray about it. But don’t stop there. Ask what you can do to make a difference.

Dr Bill Webster is the author of numerous books and resources for grieving people. He has some innovative resources which funeral directors and professionals can make available to their clients as part of an after-care programme. Check out Dr Bill’s resources at his website.

Linda D Jones, Executive Director of Resources,

Tel: 0333 8000 630



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