Why you must stop saying “Well, at least. . .”

by Carolyn Thomas     @HeartSisters

“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).

See also:

-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 *

Empathy 101: how to sound like you give a damn

Post-Traumatic Growth: how a crisis makes life better – or NOT

Oneupmanship:  you think YOU have pain?

What (not) to say when you’re visiting the sick

*  I mention Empathy Cards here because I love Emily’s work; I have no financial relationship.

31 thoughts on “Why you must stop saying “Well, at least. . .”

  1. Thank you, Carolyn, for an excellent article. I agree wholeheartedly with you, and thank you for the practical help with an alternative statement.

    The best to you!
    Sheri

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m my own worst enemy when it comes to “well, at least”.

    Anything and everything that comes to mind that’s not obviously positive, I have to say “Well, at least it’s not ____(fill in the blanks tragedy). What a way to discount my healthy response to difficult situations!

    When I catch myself at it, I’m starting to substitute something along the lines of “It’s OK to feel negative about this problem, most people would. Over time, I will come to terms with it, I just have to give myself that time. Negating how I feel now will just prolong the process.”

    Only, usually I just say to myself “Now, don’t go doing that, my feelings are OK!” 🙂

    And this has, in turn, taught me to actively listen to others who need that, so they can come to terms with their challenges. Thanks for this post, it’s a reminder that I have, in fact, progressed in many ways!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Holly – such a solid distinction between your two different responses!

      It’s one thing to silently tell YOURSELF “at least it’s not. . .” – but it’s NOT okay to tell others that – especially when they are still reeling from whatever crisis has just hit them.

      Also, good point about it being okay to feel bad or sad or scared when something awful happens. It’s completely NORMAL to feel that way at first. In fact, it would probably be highly unusual behaviour to not feel bad when crises occur.

      My article on Post-Traumatic Growth (a new-age concept that I personally don’t agree with) contains some interesting stats from researchers who also disagree, studies on the pervasive positivity movement among cancer patients, e.g. “Women who perceive more benefits from their cancer tend to face a poorer quality of life – including worse mental functioning – compared with women who do NOT perceive benefits from their diagnoses.”

      An aside: my ex-husband died very suddenly four months ago, and our two kids are just now starting to say to me and to each other, “at least Dad didn’t suffer. . .” But they had to come to that point on their own, at their own pace. It would have been so unkind to comment on suffering vs. not suffering earlier than this – all they knew is that their Dad was DEAD. They did not need to be cheered up or distracted by well-meaning comments that would have seemed irrelevant or even cruel at the time.

      As you say, it’s okay to feel bad when something bad happens!

      Take care, and stay safe . . . ♥

      Like

  3. Hi Carolyn,

    Oh my gosh, I loathe the “at least” phrase when it precedes a platitude, regardless of situation. I’ve written about this very thing quite a few times. It reminds me of when my dad died and I’d hear, at least he’s not suffering now or at least he led a long life. Hated hearing such things and hearing them did not make be feel better. Quite the opposite.

    Megan Devine writes about the unspoken half of those platitudes (as did I in a post with that title, I need to dig that one out) in her terrific book, “It’s Ok that You’re Not Ok: Meeting Grief and Loss In a Culture that Doesn’t Understand.” Excellent book.

    She points out that the second half of such platitudes more or less sends a clear, hidden message which is, stop feeling so bad. For ex, “At least they’re in a better place…so, stop feeling so bad.” Ugh.

    One we hear a lot in Breast Cancer Land: “At least you got the good cancer – so, stop feeling so bad”.

    And thank you so much for mentioning my book. You’re so kind. Glad you like the title, Sara. And you too, Carolyn. As you know it was the only title that worked for me.

    Thanks for writing about this topic.

    Stay safe. xx

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hello Nancy and thanks for weighing in here. You already know what a fan I am of your writing (and your book title!) so anytime I write about platitudes, I can hear your voice in my ear!

      Thanks for the recommendation of that book by Megan Divine (here’s a link to it) I can already tell this is a book I want to read, e.g. she defines grief as “a natural and sane response to loss”, and covers why “well-meaning advice, therapy, and spiritual wisdom so often end up making it harder for people in grief…” (essentially, what we’re all discussing with this ‘well, at least. . . “ topic here today).

      She’s so right – what we really are saying whenever we start a well-meaning comment by saying “well, at least. . . “ is STOP FEELING SO BAD – even when it’s perfectly appropriate to feel very, very bad.

      I too heard a lot of well-meaning “at least he led a long life..” comments after my own Dad died (a lifelong non-smoker who died of lung cancer) – to which I wanted to scream: “Oh yeah? Well it wasn’t LONG ENOUGH!”

      “AT LEAST YOU GOT THE GOOD CANCER!?!?” Good lord, that’s like asking, what are YOU whining about?

      Thank you Nancy for your astute response here.

      Take care, and stay safe. . . ♥

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Thank you for this post. You are spot on, people, well-meaning people, seem to want to make themselves feel better by finding some rationalization for your sad situation.

    I had twins 31 years ago. One of them died at two weeks of age, of (at that time) an irreparable heart defect. People, one after the other and even including my own mother, said “well at least you still have the other one”.

    That was in fact the most common thing everyone said. Of course it was wonderful to have “the other one”, and to your other points, of course it’s great you have medical coverage or you look good or whatever they say.

    It is very hard to think of the right thing to say to people; sometimes the best thing is to simply say nothing and hug them if you can.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh, Kitty. What a tragic loss that must have been for your family. As you correctly say, OF COURSE you were happy to have your other baby alive, but that “at least” comment dismissed the grief you were feeling over your 2-week old baby who was no longer alive – almost as if that little life didn’t even count somehow. It must have truly been a uniquely happy-sad experience.

      I agree – when in doubt, SAY NOTHING and hug them if you can.

      Take care, stay safe. . . ♥

      Like

  5. The worst thing I ever heard was after my 33 year old son died suddenly. In awe, more than one person said, “He died at the same age as Jesus!”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. MORE THAN ONE PERSON said that to you!?!?

      Pauline, that’s dreadful. What are these people thinking? Or are they so lacking in basic courtesy that they actually believe that if a thought pops into their brain, they must blurt it out loud?

      And was that observation supposed to be comforting to a grieving mother on the worst day of your life?

      I’m sorry that you had to hear that. . . So upsetting.

      Take care, stay safe out there. . . ♥

      Like

  6. Thank you so much for this post. Another example that was compelling for me was when our mother (having had multiple strokes along with crippling rheumatoid arthritis and dementia) was in a nursing home and confused and lonely and the situation was horrible.

    I was the family member with responsibility for overseeing her care, etc. and mom had lived with us prior to her strokes. One day at the nursing home, I commented to a family member about how awful this was and how badly I felt that mom had to experience all of this.

    A family member launched into the “well at least ….. and at least ……” platitudes. I was so angry I wanted to dropkick the person.

    Both in that situation and in my own experiences with pneumonia and heart events, those kinds of comments, while I am assuming most are considered/intended to be well-intentioned, they don’t take into consideration that everyone experiences things differently.

    They also presume to understand how the other person feels.

    Far better (in my opinion) to take ownership of one’s own feelings and allow the other person to express how they feel and what they may need. Otherwise, it sounds like preaching and feels presumptuous and self-serving.

    After I had two cardiac arrests, revivals and subsequent open heart surgery, and as a result, I felt completely changed as a person. It is hard to explain exactly, but in my mind, at least, there’s a definite before and after…and because my entire body, including my brain, was affected, I know that I changed as a person.

    It took some adjustment, and I tried to express the angst of all of that to a family member. Again, the platitude response kicked in, which effectively denied me my feelings. I think that is part of the problem with the “well at least” response…..it’s an attempt to minimize one’s feelings and experience.

    Sometimes it can also be helpful to take the “how can I help?” question a bit further, by including a specific idea….as in, “would it be helpful for me to bring you dinner?” or “do you need a ride for treatment” “are there any errands I could do for you?”

    Sometimes people (myself included) can’t really think of what they need. Sometimes a food gift is helpful, but sometimes what is needed is vacuuming. The generic question can be good, but a specific offer can demonstrate that you want to do something that is really needed.

    Again, thanks for this! Awesome post.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. So many good suggestions of offers of help, Helen -thank you.

      I think most people when confronted with other people’s pain or hardship are not very well equipped to
      #1 Listen sincerely
      #2 Move beyond their own self – survival to be of service to someone else

      I think the true first reaction of most people when they hear of tragedy or illness is “Thank God it wasn’t me” or “Thank God it wasn’t my child”.

      Those feelings are legitimate but feed into the need to minimize the situation with the “Well At least…”

      If we would just be quiet, not feel any immediate response is needed but be available to listen with compassion to what another is going through, we could be way more helpful.

      My very best friend has stage 4 breast cancer. I can sit, In silence, hold her hand, and look into her eyes with compassion and that’s all she needs from me.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Hi Jill – you bring up such an important point: just BE QUIET and not feel that an immediate response is needed. Sometimes, saying nothing is the best gift we can give.

        Your friend with breast cancer is lucky to have a friend like you to hold her hand and listen.

        Take care, stay safe. . . ♥

        Like

    2. Hello Helen – having watched my own Mum in a care facility after a number of strokes, also with advancing dementia, I know that it can be, as you say, a horrible situation. Why can’t a daughter who feels heartbroken about seeing her mother in this state express her feelings without being jollied out of them, or without being made to feel that she’s not allowed to express this very big sadness and grief?

      Your family member must have forgotten that you had been your mother’s main care organizer, and that she had even lived in your home, so you knew her far better than anybody else could have. I think some of these platitudes must be irresistible – they just come spewing out in the face of emotions that may seem too unpleasant to respond to – and by doing so, they absolutely deny the feelings being expressed.

      I once wrote a post about choosing your listeners carefully. Sometimes, the people we confide in are NOT the most appropriate. Sometimes, family members are NOT the best listeners. Sometimes, we’re surprised by who ends up being a kind and empathetic listener, and who does not.

      I do love your list of specific questions to ask somebody facing a hard time. I heard many times, “Let me know if there’s anything I can do to help!” – but honestly, I just couldn’t summon up the nerve to say, “Can you come over and clean out the kitty litter box?”

      These days, I try to convince heart patients that your friends wouldn’t offer to help you unless they really DO want to help, so let others feel useful by giving them the opportunity to do something kind.

      One very helpful friend (I’ll never forget this!) called me one day and said, “I’m at the grocery store – what can I pick up for you while I’m here?”

      Speaking of helpful gifts, I have just learned about a free online meal scheduling service called Meal Train. When a friend’s husband died on Christmas Day after a long illness, one of our other friends set up an account for her with this service. What a relief it must be for my friend to not have to worry about shopping or meal planning during such a hard time. And this way, her friends also know that she won’t be getting three lasagnas dropped off on the same day!

      I sure wish we’d had this service right after my babies were born.

      So many ways to be helpful – and so many ways NOT to be helpful. Might as well try to be helpful, right?

      Stay safe, take care, Helen! ♥

      Like

      1. Thanks, Carolyn.

        Question: Have you ever done a piece on the role of sleep in dealing with cardiac issues?

        I recently discovered that one of the meds I take appears to be impacting my sleep. When I don’t sleep well, then I get more symptoms (shortness of breath, fatigue) during exercise.

        After communicating with my doctor, I started taking small amounts of melatonin if I wake up in the middle of the night….that’s the problem I have, waking up at 3 and not being able to go back to sleep.

        Cardiologist said that’s ok for me with my meds. But, the point I’m making is I think sleep may be a really important factor that is sometimes overlooked, and if we correct the sleep it may help our hearts.

        Just wondering if you are aware of research or info in this area and if you’ve written about it.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Hi again Helen – I think you are correct: sleep IS an important and often overlooked factor for optimal heart health. You’re wise to consult your cardiologist before taking new meds or supplements. I have a question for you about melatonin: do you take it only when you wake up at 3 a.m. – or does taking it before bedtime allow you to sleep through the night? I have had the same issue lately, but if I woke at 3 a.m. and then had to get up to take a pill, I’d make myself MORE wide awake! Also, my understanding is that melatonin may increase blood pressure in those who are already taking meds for high BP.

          I did in fact write about sleep, in this post.

          In it, I quoted New York sleep specialist Dr. Steven Park who believes that sleep breathing disorders (like sleep apnea or upper airway resistance syndrome) are clearly linked to heart disease. In fact, he cites research suggesting that “most people with heart disease have (or will have) significant obstructive sleep apnea.” Interrupted breathing, he says, can lead to interrupted deep sleep “which causes a massive physiologic stress response.” This may result in increased fatigue and not feeling refreshed, no matter how long the sleep. Very interesting research on this topic.

          Thanks again, Helen! ♥

          Like

  7. Excellent post – all of it. I love the book title, Cancer was not a gift and it didn’t make me a better person. Yep. Wasn’t a gift and didn’t make me some kind of post-cancer saint.

    Just like microvascular angina wasn’t a gift, as I learned when I was tempted to get out my cross-country skis to see if I could just walk on the last lovely snowfall. Nope. Hang up the skis. Done.

    Thank you for keeping these posts coming.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hello, Sara – I love Nancy Stordahl’s book title too!

      I hope that one day very soon, maybe after your next big snowfall, you WILL be able to get on those skis for a lovely winter outing. MVD is a rotten companion – doesn’t care what our plans are at all, does it?

      Take care, and please stay safe. . . ♥

      Like

  8. Great post. Thank you. This is what feels more comforting to me:

    Hearing myself speak to someone who is my friend…someone who loves me…someone who I just need to hold the space for me – to hear me – so I can better hear myself: this is what I find helps.

    Also, open-ended questions help, and flowers help, and even texts/messages of caring help. It helps to know that people are thinking of me and ‘sending me love’.

    The timing of this post today is spot on for me in my life. My husband is facing heart surgery soon and the other day a person said to me ‘well it is his soul’s choice…he can transmute the pain by believing he can heal himself.’

    What an outrageous comment to say! I am feeling that I best not speak to this person now for a very long time as I find this comment UNKIND.

    I believe we as humans are here for love and learning, but LOVE is always first.

    Thank you, Carolyn, again — for the chance for me to open up and hear myself and be heard. Thank you for writing about issues that so many of us face in our daily lives.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks for this perspective, Isabella – and especially for your list of what DOES feel helpful for you.

      The person who said that preposterous comment to you about your husband’s upcoming heart surgery is a piece of work. I agree – best to steer clear of all persons who cannot support you with love during this worrisome time.

      If I had your mailing address, I would immediately send you my favourite card from Emily McDowell’s Empathy Card collection that says:

      “PLEASE LET ME BE THE FIRST TO PUNCH THE NEXT PERSON WHO TELLS YOU EVERYTHING HAPPENS FOR A REASON: I’m sorry you are going through this.”

      You also bring up an important point that’s often discussed in breast cancer circles: the hurtfully inappropriate concept that if you “battle” your diagnosis in the correct fashion, with enough POSITIVITY, you will WIN the battle, but all those people who have “lost their battle with cancer” – as the obituaries say – must have had a bad attitude. That’s such a cruel message to all the families who have lost loved ones.

      Take care, Isabella, and stay safe . . . ♥

      Like

      1. Thank you Carolyn… I visited Emily’s site when I first read your post. I am subscribed now. Just wish I could access the cards to buy here in the UK. Thank you for the virtual card message. It me feel teary.

        You take care too and stay safe.

        Liked by 1 person

    2. Oh, Isabella, isn’t it awful sometimes what people say?

      My mother was dying of an aggressive brain cancer, when we had just moved to a new Army post (fortunately only a 3-hour drive from where she lived). One of the other women in the unit, in her first (and only!) call to me, about something else, additionally told me that if I prayed hard enough, my mother would be cured. OMG…

      I did understand that was something which gave that woman comfort in her own life challenges, but what a thing to say to a total stranger, in essence telling me that my mother’s life was up to me “praying hard enough” – so, when she died, it would be my fault?

      Sheesh. I kinda avoided her when I could afterwards 🙂

      Like

      1. Thank you Holly… I am thinking that people who say things like this person said to you about your mother (and what was said to me about my husband’s upcoming open heart surgery) are in their heads and not in their hearts.

        They do not want to open their hearts to a love that is inclusive of our humanity and the ‘undoing’ part of life.

        Liked by 1 person

    1. You don’t have to go on, rkivela – because I can perfectly picture that ongoing list.

      Yes, you’re still breathing, but pointing that out to you as if breathing alone should cheer you up suggests that “still breathing” should be enough. You’d probably resonate with the post on Post-Traumatic Growth, in which researchers debunk this nonsensical motivational-speaker B.S. that what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger. Sometimes, it does NOT.

      Take care, and stay safe. . . ♥

      Like

  9. Enter its corollary: “Just…”.

    As in “just lose weight”, “just take your medicine”, “just exercise every day” and the like.

    Better: “I am so sorry”, “I am here for you”, “what can I do to help?”.

    Spot on as usual, Carolyn.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh yes, Dr. Anne – that word “just”. . . It somehow seeks to minimize the importance of whatever challenge we are struggling with.

      Reminds me of our 5-year old granddaughter Everly Rose, who – when I complained of my chronically sore knee one day while walking her to kindergarten, stopped and offered me this advice: “JUST DO THIS, Baba!” – as she jumped up and down on both feet!

      Jump!? I could barely walk! This is very funny when a 5-year old says it, but not funny at all when “helpful” adults say it.

      Take care, and stay safe. . . ♥

      Like

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