The power of words

By Lois Ustanko, RN MA MS Apr 13, 2017

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As I reflect back on a week full of interesting, unfolding scenarios, it strikes me that words are powerful. Consequences — for the good or for the bad — are associated with the words we choose. In a short period of time, I experienced words used in remarkable ways. Methods used to deliver the words can differ, but what doesn’t vary is their potential to have a lasting impact.

The first text message I received from my young (just over 40) cousin Thursday morning said, “If you are at the hospital today please stop by to see me, I’m in Room XXX. I had my bilateral mastectomy and reconstruction yesterday and want to talk.”
The event that led to this started with three short words, “You have cancer.” She’s the daughter of an aunt of mine who also had breast cancer and is the third of four daughters to hear those three words. Roads to recovery have been different for all of them on their respective cancer journeys.

A young woman of barely more than 30 years grew up with my daughters and as a teenager spent as much time in my home as she did in her own. She used to jokingly call me her ‘other mother.’ An early-morning email contained the eulogy she planned to share at her father’s funeral Thursday afternoon. Her words I’ll share below because they mean so much — at least to me — and were perfect in my eyes, but she wanted some reassurance. She adored her father as the youngest child in her family, a girl who arrived 10 years after her three siblings. She was ‘daddy’s little girl,’ but he was taken from her much too soon after a brief illness, an illness everyone anticipated would end with recovery, but instead resulted in complications and death.
Just a few days before, she said that she was in shock, “When you are standing in the ICU getting reports you do know things are serious but your mind tells you it’s just a ‘rough patch,’ a few days of bumpy roads, then some time to recover. You never expect to get the call in the middle of the night and to eventually have a doctor tell you, ‘I’m sorry, we did our best, but he didn’t make it.’ It feels surreal…”

Thursday evening, I listened to three fabulous nurses who were awarded their white coats after achieving certification in their specialty. As they shared their stories, it was clear they were inspired by colleagues who had conveyed that certification stretches us, challenging us to learn more about our specialty area of practice. Since most certifications are based on a written test, the nurse extensively studies the conditions he or she manages within the specialty and the medications or interventions used to treat them. This acquired knowledge generates competency — which produces excellent patient experiences and outcomes.

As I sit in my recliner relaxing while taking in the news this Thursday evening, the reporters say, “There is no evidence of wiretapping,” and the spinning begins. Then a new group of reporters begins a panel discussion about the proposed health plan. As they talk, I’m reading a Facebook update from another cousin who was in a major car accident with her three sons last month. Their physical recovery has been slow and painful, but her focus today is on wondering how they are going to pay their $5,000 deductible. Their dialogue and her written narrative about her frustrating conversations with insurers bring me back to a point a few years ago when I worked three jobs to pay the $1,000 premium plus $1,000 per month for medications and payments for medical bills. Yes, an allocation of more than $2,000 per month just to try to break even while ensuring my husband had health insurance and the medications he needed for his heart condition. Keeping up with those obligations month after month was physically, mentally and emotionally exhausting. So I’m paying close attention to all of these proposals at a state and federal level. I hope others do as well, and even more importantly I hope everyone shares their opinion about the proposals by calling or writing to their representatives.

Events unfold — for good or bad — because of what someone says. Inflammatory words can start wars that bring death and destruction. Within families, combative words can lead to the death of love, the death of a marriage. In the workplace, directive words without an opportunity for discussion lead to the death of hope and passion for the work, which eventually causes talented people to seek new employment opportunities. Across the country and around the globe, words motivate people to rise up in rebellion or to pick up weapons against others.

On the other hand, as Karen Ehman says, “Soothing words have calmed souls, quieted hearts, and prevented potentially volatile situations from escalating and producing dire consequences. Encouraging words have imparted courage and empowered doubting souls to accomplish what they never dreamed they could. Loving words have birthed relationships and bonded soul mates.”
How are the words you are using impacting those to whom you are speaking?

Ehman continues, “Pain and sorrow or love and inspiration. Words are powerful and they have consequences. The consequences may be stellar — or sorrowful. They may be amazing — or awful. They may make an impact on lives for the better — or affect souls for the worse. We can use our speech — both spoken and written — for good or for evil. Our words can bring life-giving refreshment or deal a deathblow. Words can be warmth or a weapon. How we wield them will affect not only our relationship with others, but also affects our relationship with God.”

As people gathered in the small country church for the celebration of life for a beloved father, his ‘little girl’ shared the words of love below that remind us that life is fragile. As Ian Maclaren said, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”

I encourage all of us to pause before speaking, to listen twice as often as talking, and to consider and pray about the messages we convey to increase the likelihood of building bridges and sustaining relationships. ‘Daddy’s little girl’ says:

“If you love something, love it completely, cherish it, say it, but most importantly, show it.
“Life is finite and fragile, and just because something is there for one day, it might not be the next. Never take that for granted.
“Say what you need to say, and then say a little more. Say too much. Show too much. Love too much. Everything is temporary but love. Love outlives us all.”

And the day ends with a meme filled with meaningful words.
“Use kind words. Keep your promises. Giggle and laugh. Stay happy and be positive. Love one another. Always be grateful. Forgiveness is mandatory. Give thanks for everything. Try new things. Say please and thank you. Smile.”

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