“Well, at least . . .” It’s the innocuous start of a perfunctory platitude, offered up when we don’t quite know what else to say in the face of another person’s loss. Here’s why saying those words can feel so unhelpful during a health crisis: . .
Heart patients can expect to get an earful of “Well, at least. . .”:
–“Well, at least you’ll be back to normal very soon. . .”
-“Well, at least you survived that!”
-“Well, at least you have medical coverage. . .”
I’ve often thought that this immediate urge to distract us is also why many heart patients are so cheerfully reassured about their appearance (although I suspect such compliments more often reflect the relief of the speaker when we don’t look as hideous as they’d feared, rather than our own fabulousness). See also: “You Look Great!” – and Other Things You Should Never Say to Heart Patients”
The late Dr. Jessie Gruman was the president and founder of the Center for Advancing Health, a respected patient activist, and author of AfterShock: What to Do When the Doctor Gives You — Or Someone You Love — A Devastating Diagnosis. She was once interviewed about what she called “The Lemon of Illness and the Demand For Lemonade” on her Prepared Patient Forum blog, including these sentiments:
“The belief is that sickness ennobles us; that there is good to be found in the experience of illness; while diseases are bad, they teach life lessons that are good – but this belief can inadvertently hurt sick people and those who love them.
“If I do not find spiritual or philosophical benefit, I fall short: either I haven’t tried hard enough or I’m not smart enough to do so.”
My lovely daughter-in-law Paula tells a compelling story from her high school days that perfectly illustrates why hearing “Well, at least. . .” can be so unhelpful.
On one terrible day many decades ago, in an unspeakably surreal coincidence, the young mothers of two of Paula’s closest school friends died. ON THE SAME DAY.
One of the Mums had been very ill for a long time, and the family had witnessed her slow decline before she took her last breath.
The other Mum, however, died very suddenly – a horrific shock to her family and friends who were stunned by news of her unexpected death.
People close to the first Mum were compelled to say to her daughter:
“Well, at least you were with her when she died. . .”
People close to the second Mum said to her daughter:
“Well, at least she didn’t suffer. . .”
Paula later reflected on how the “Well, at least” sentiment can seem to minimize or dismiss the pain that each of her young friends was going through – almost as if their pain wasn’t as real as it was, as if the pain they endured could have actually been far worse, as if they could be distracted out of their pain.
But in those grieving households, the end result of loss was the same that day: their mothers were both gone.
Ultimately, family members may one day look back at this sad time and make peace with the reality of how Mum had died. But before that moment, nobody outside of each family group should be recommending a more positive way to view this very personal tragedy.
“Well, at least. . .” is the poor cousin of other well-intentioned but ultimately unhelpful platitudes – like, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” See also: Does Surviving a Heart Attack Make You a Better Person?
These platitudes are often shared by those who may believe that such comforting words are historically based on comforting biblical teachings.
But in his 2016 book called Half Truths: God Helps Those Who Help Themselves – and Other Things the Bible Doesn’t Say, author Rev. Adam Hamilton challenges this belief. He specifically mentions, for example, a commonly heard response to other people’s tragedies that you’ve likely heard many times: “God never gives you more than you can handle” :
“The context for this bible verse in 1 Corinthians is self-discipline in the face of temptation, with the hope of avoiding sin. This passage is NOT about God declining to give you more burdens in life than you can handle. It is about God helping you when you are tempted.”
The truth is that every minute of every day, many people all over the world face terrible burdens that they are quite unable to handle at the time. Very bad things DO happen to good people, to paraphrase the title of the wonderful book by Rabbi Harold Kushner who wrote it after the death of his young son. Many of these good people eventually somehow come to terms with their tragedies, while others struggle to do so.
And as Dr. Michael Craig Miller at Harvard writes:
“Popular culture promotes the misconception that there is an orderly progression of emotions that will lead to ‘closure.’ This is also probably wrong for most people.
“Gradually, but at their own pace, most people do find themselves adjusting to the loss and slipping back into the routines of daily life.”
Image: birgl at Pixabay
Q: What feels more comforting to you than hearing “Well, at least. . .”?
NOTE FROM CAROLYN: I wrote more about how to respond when somebody you know is freshly-diagnosed in my book, ““A Woman’s Guide to Living with Heart Disease“ , published by Johns Hopkins University Press. You can ask for it at your local library or favourite bookshop, or order it online (paperback, hardcover or e-book) at Amazon, or order it directly from my publisher (use their code HTWN to save 20% off the list price of my book).
-If you or somebody you care about lives with a breast cancer diagnosis, read Nancy Stordahl’s book (best title ever!) “Cancer Was Not a Gift and It Didn’t Make Me a Better Person“
– If you are looking for a special greeting card for somebody going through a hard time, check out Emily McDowell’s unique Empathy Cards *