At some point, most of us have used the words “at least” in an effort to make things better for someone who has suffered a loss. A co-worker’s parent dies after a lengthy illness – “at least he and his family had time to say goodbye.” A friend discloses that she has stage 1 breast cancer – “at least they caught it early!” An elderly neighbor loses her husband at age 87 – “at least they had so many good years together.”
However well-meaning our intentions, when we “at least” someone, including ourselves, we can inadvertently send a strong message that their grief is less worthy, or, that they need to dial down their sorrow in order to avoid making others feel uncomfortable. The words “at least” imply a comparison – as if the person’s loss is somehow less devastating. Though our intent is to comfort, the outcome is more likely to leave the person feeling guilty, silenced and misunderstood.
If you’ve been on the receiving side of a well-meaning “at least”, you know how hollow you felt.
So what is the alternative?
Simply acknowledging the reality of what did happen. In our rush to point out what could have happened, we effectively void what did happen. Instead, consider something like, “it’s terrible you’re going through this – it sounds really hard.” A sentence short on words, but long on acknowledgement.
M. McInnes Meyer suggests that we “stop forcing ourselves and others to move around everything – to effectively drop it or dodge it. Let’s stop telling people to get over it instead of getting through it. Holding the space for a person’s pain is allowing yourself and others that space – where no one is compelled to fix anything – that is the only place where compassion has the right-of-way.”
A note on gratitude, positivity and being “tough”: gratitude for what we do have does not make the pain of what we no longer have go away. Giving words to what you are feeling is not a lack of positive attitude, nor is it a sign of weakness. In the wake of a painful loss, it is unlikely that any of us feel anything near gratitude, positivity or tough. Not only is that okay, it’s a necessary part of healing.
Rather than try to compare, minimize or “at least” a loss, let’s recognize that each person’s grief is his or her own. All grief is experienced at 100%. There are no exceptions.