The One Thing To Never Say

Girl saying shhh

My friend had longed for, tried for, prayed for a baby for a long time. And now she cradled her precious stillborn baby girl in her arms. “At least,” her mother said to her, “the baby died before she grew up. Imagine if you had had her for a few years and then had to lose her.”


My friend and I have known each other for years, but this was the first time she was talking to me about this experience, 20 years in the past. Her pain was still raw, palpable, and contagious.


“But she didn’t understand. I would have given anything, anything, to spend even one hour with her alive.”


To be in the presence of another person’s suffering is sacred. It is also terrifying, as sorrow that great threatens to swallow whole anyone who bears witness. I listened to my friend, cried with her, and felt angry at her mother’s seemingly insensitive response to this tragedy. But then I recognized that her mother’s only intention was to stem her daughter’s unbearable agony. This is human: a desperation to ease our loved ones’ pain.


I became aware in that moment of my own acute desire to make it better for her, twenty years later. At the same time, I was fearful of committing the same crime, inadvertently wounding my friend further. What could I say?


It’s not as if I haven’t had practice. As a therapist, my job was listening and responding to difficult stories. My business sending care packages to grieving children immerses me in the pain of others. My doctoral work featured interviews with Holocaust survivors. Yet here I was, silenced by my fear of the clumsy misstep.


Now that I have cancer, I am on the receiving end of efforts to ease my suffering. While I recognize that the intentions are uniformly kind and aimed at alleviating pain, I have sometimes cringed at others’ inartful reactions to my news.


I have come to the conclusion that there is really only one rule that matters when bearing witness to another’s suffering. At all costs, avoid any statement that begins with “at least….” “At least it didn’t spread.” “At least he didn’t suffer.” “At least you got to say goodbye.”


Why is it so hard for us to find the right words for the sufferer? We feel uncomfortable and helpless, so we strive to do something that brings comfort, not only to the sufferer but also to ourselves. We want to feel like we are helping; we want to be uplifting, hoping that somehow our optimism’s momentum can pick up the other person and drag her from despair.


Empathy can be a powerful antidote to pain, but empathy asks a lot. Empathy requires us to join others in their dark place and match their tenor. When we empathize with someone in pain, we experience pain too, our mirror neurons firing in the same sad, desperate patterns. We listen and we hear heartbreaking melodies in minor keys; we feel the agony in the music. The moment we move toward a solution, we attempt to be uplifting, the moment we utter the words “at least…,” we have jumped to a higher octave, a more cheerful note in a major key.  We are now singing out of tune with the sufferer.


“At least…” not only signals a break in empathy, it also induces guilt.  Any statement that begins with these words will be followed by the identification of a privilege, an indication of the ways in which the sufferer’s situation could be worse. What is the result? The sufferer is implicitly called to agree, to assuage the speaker. “Yes, you are right. Thank you for pointing that out.” All the while, the sufferer feels guilty. “Maybe I don’t have a right to wallow.” As a therapist, I heard this a lot, this guilt in feeling pain when so-and-so had it worse.


But the most damaging result of, “at least” isn’t the break in empathy or the call to guilt. It is the fact that the use of “at least” effectively robs the sufferer of the chance to activate her own resilience. She can no longer discover the silver lining herself if you’ve preemptively pointed it out.


Educational philosopher Maria Montessori once wrote about a little boy who, smaller than his peers, was struggling to see what was happening in the playground’s water basin around which the bigger and older children had excitedly gathered. This boy spotted a stool on the far end of the playground, dragged the heavy thing clear across the yard, and was just about to mount it and peer in when a teacher noticed his struggle and lifted him up to see over the top of his classmates’ heads. Montessori expresses her disappointment: “Undoubtedly the child, seeing the floating toys, did not experience the joy that he was about to feel through conquering the obstacle with his own force…. His intelligent efforts would have developed his inner powers… the little fellow had been about to feel himself a conqueror, and he found himself held within two imprisoning arms, impotent.”


Trust me, there are plenty of “at least’s” with my cancer. At least I caught it early. At least we have good insurance. At least our kids are well supported. At least we have the financial and educational resources to advocate for the best treatment. There are silver linings everywhere. But I don’t want you to point them out to me. You might get them wrong. You might make me feel guilty. You might short-circuit my process. Let me generate and discover my own “at least’s.” Don’t rob me of my opportunity to summon my own inner powers, to conquer my own obstacles, to discover my optimism.


Let your thought of “at least” trigger alarm bells. “Warning! Danger Ahead! Use Caution!” Instead, try a gentle hand on a shoulder. Try a “tell me more about your experience.” Or try silence and a listening ear.

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