If we're honest, most of us have done it: Heard about a tragic loss and responded -- either verbally or in our own minds -- with the words "at least."
A 42-year-old drops dead of a heart attack -- "At least he didn't suffer."
A friend's parent dies after a long illness -- "At least she and her family had time to prepare and say goodbye."
An elderly neighbor loses her husband at age 95 -- "At least they had 60+ good years together."
We're trying to make better. But the truth is that when we utter these words out loud, we're minimizing someone's pain. However inadvertently, we are sending the message: "Your grief is less worthy" or "I can't tolerate the intensity of your pain -- please tone down your grief to make me more comfortable."
To be fair, the impulse to respond to loss with the words "at least" is powerful and understandable. In today's digital society, we are surrounded by stories of loss. What social workers call "compassion fatigue" affects not just those of us in helping professions, but anyone facing the barrage of stories of loss that saturate social media, newspapers and television news.
For those of us one or two steps removed from the loss, the words "at least" may make the discomfort of hearing stories of loss feel a little bit more manageable.
But for the person in the thick of the loss -- the spouse, best friend, parent, or child of the deceased -- the pain of grief cannot be short-circuited. We might drive it underground with "at least" statements. But rather than truly making the person feel better, we're silencing the expressions of grief that are so important to allowing the person to work through their loss.
What is it about "at least" statements that can make someone feel as if you're suggesting their grief is less worthy?
The words "at least" suggest a comparison. They imply that the mourner's loss is somehow less significant/painful/devastating. Instead of feeling comforted, this can leave the mourner feeling guilty, silenced, frustrated, and misunderstood.
When we say "At least he didn't suffer," what the person may hear is: "You're selfish to be focusing on your own loss, rather than feeling fortunate that your loved one had an "easy" death."
When we say: "At least you and your family had time to prepare and say good-bye," what the person may hear is, "Your pain at witnessing your loved one's final illness and their suffering are unimportant. You are ungrateful for the opportunities this type of death allowed you."
When we say: "At least you had 60+ good years together," what the person may hear is, "Your grief is less worthy than that of a younger person. You are ungrateful for the time that you had."
So what is the alternative?
Rather than try to compare or minimize a loss, let's recognize that each person's grief is his or her own. Let's be that listening ear when someone wants to talk about the pain of loss. Let's validate feelings, rather than minimizing them. Let's be willing to really sit with the pain of that person's loss, rather than short circuit it with platitudes and comparisons.
It won't be easy, but what a gift it will be!