People who lost a loved one to a difficult illness hear it:
At least he isn’t suffering anymore.
At least she is out of pain.
People who lost a loved one in an instant hear it:
At least she didn’t suffer.
At least he died instantly.
People who lost an adult sibling hear it:
At least you had so many wonderful years with your sister.
At least you and your brother were close.
Cancer patients, and families of cancer patients, hear it:
At least it’s treatable.
At least you haven’t lost your hair.
People suffering from painful chronic illnesses hear it:
At least you are still here.
At least you still have your mind.
People caring for a loved one with a terminal illness hear it:
At least you can say goodbye to him.
At least you have a chance to resolve your differences with her.
Most of the time when we offer up “at least” statements, we have earnest and kind intentions to help. We hope to reveal a silver lining. We mean to shift the focus to something positive, to shed light.
However, trying to help someone appreciate what they “at least” have can backfire. When “at least” comes at the bereaved, the ill, the worried caregivers, they often hear an admonishment: “Get out of that damaging negative place and focus on this good thing that I’m helping you to see.” If and when the good thing fails to cheer them up, they may see themselves as having failed. Ironically, people who offer a positive “at least” thought may make themselves feel better even as they push the person they are trying to help into a darker mood.
I wonder, too, if "at least" can make us feel badly in part because the least pales in comparison to what we had. When we have known far more and better, the least is not enough. We want our loved one back, we want our health back.
For me, there is only one way that “at least” works – when I come up with it myself. Sometimes a thought will occur to me, such as, “at least my brother has a family,” or “at least we had many years of being good friends,” and the idea sinks in and provides solace. When “at least” comes from my own impulse, I don’t feel shamed into cheering up. It doesn’t feel patronizing. It is me taking care of me.
When you are in crisis, "at least" comments may come your way. If they hurt, consider saying so: "Yes, that may be true, but honestly it doesn't make me feel better right now." Help others understand what you need. Notice those moments when "at least" comes from within, and see if they bring a kinder and more lasting light.
On the other hand, when you have the impulse to offer an “at least” idea to someone, try this: First express how you feel (rather than telling the person what to feel), then ask questions. If a friend’s father died of cancer and you want to say, “At least he is out of pain,” try shifting focus to your own reaction: “I am relieved that your father is no longer suffering.” If you then ask, “How do you feel?” you give your friend permission to share what she truly thinks in that moment, whether it echoes your feeling or not. If a cousin’s son is ill with cancer, you could say, “I am glad that he receives treatment at such a reputable hospital. How do you feel about his care so far?” Here again you have invited an honest response, in a way that communicates respect for whatever that response turns out to be, good, bad, or ugly.
The gap between what we believe people in crisis should focus on and what they are really thinking can be wide and dark. By offering acceptance and respect we narrow the gap until we can reach across it and grasp hands, helping one another down the uncertain path as equals and true companions.