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Never say these 2 words to somebody in pain

When we see a loved one moving through a painful time in their life, we may want to help them make meaning of their experience and mitigate their pain.

By Sarah Epstein

Published: Wed 27 Jan 2021, 8:42 PM

At our core, we are meaning-makers. We live through and then interpret the events of our lives, bringing order to our experiences. When we endure pain and unhappiness, we find ways to frame and understand it and sometimes even find value in it. That process is integral to moving through and living with the experiences.

When we see a loved one moving through a painful time in their life, we may want to help them make meaning of their experience and mitigate their pain. How do we do that? We try to help them see the bright side of things.

We say things like:

• At least you still have your health.

• At least it wasn’t cancer.

• At least your marriage produced your kids.

• At least he lived into his 80s.

• At least you still have a job.

We mean well when we offer the words “at least”. We hope to help them feel gratitude amid their pain, perspective during a difficult stretch. And the words we offer may be true; a person coming through a health scare may not have cancer, a recently deceased loved one may have lived a full and healthy life, and unhappy marriages can yield beloved children. That’s not the issue when we offer up a version of “just be grateful that” or “look on the bright side.”

There are two issues that arise when we offer the words “at least”. The first is that every person needs to come to their narrative in their own time. A person who just lost a loved one may not immediately be able to look on the bright side. The pain is too fresh, the loss too jarring and difficult. The end of a marriage may eventually lead to being able to cherish the good memories, but that is unlikely to happen immediately. When we tell a person to look on the bright side on our time schedule instead of their own, we inadvertently circumvent the grief process by trying to jump past the uncomfortable-loss part of the process. We diminish it. The result is the person in pain feels rushed and pressured to just feel better already. In case this needs to be said: Feeling bad when bad things happen is normal and natural and appropriate.

The second issue with offering the words “at least” is that the person may never find meaning in the way we’d like them to. A person needs to process their pain in their own way. As a person moves through sadness and starts to make sense of their reality, they will craft a story that helps them live with the experience. That may involve gratitude that at least they have their health or their children. But it may not. Some people come through a painful experience and never find the silver lining; instead they accept the pain for what it is and find a way to move forward. The “at least” may never come, even if we want it to. Telling somebody to look on the bright side may make us feel better about their pain, but it may never resonate with them.

What Should I Say Instead?

When a loved one is going through a difficult time, try saying things like:

• “That’s so hard, how are you doing?”

• “What’s been the hardest part of this for you?”

• “Would you like to talk about it or would you prefer to talk about something else?”

• “Wow, I’m so sorry.”

Why are these phrases so much harder than telling somebody to look on the bright side? Because they involve sitting with somebody else’s pain rather than trying to rush through it. These phrases signal to the person that we are willing to be with them, even when it is uncomfortable. And that might just be exactly what they need.

— Psychology Today

Sarah Epstein is a marriage and family therapist working in Philadelphia

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