The Least Kind of Comfort

I’m done with “at least.” This time, for good. I’ve grown weary of the phrase, with all its false sympathy, but I forgot this in a recent encounter with Joanna.* I hope I never forget again.

Our conversation happened a little over a week after Tarica had been diagnosed with epilepsy. Joanna and her family had attended our Sunday morning church service. She asked me about Tarica’s seizures and our experience in the hospital.

I said, “Her seizures started two weeks ago. Or is it three? No, it’s only two weeks. Time is….” I trailed off, waving a hand inadequately. “It feels like….”

“It feels like you lived a lifetime in a week,” Joanna said, and the certainty in her voice caught my attention.

“It sounds like you know from experience,” I said.

Joanna smiled, a bit ruefully. “We spent part of a week at Hershey Medical Center with our oldest child when she was three. They told us she had leukemia, but then they discovered she has a rare genetic disease called Immerschlund-Grasbeck Syndrome. It’s a vitamin B-12 deficiency, and without treatment, it’s fatal.”

I looked at her daughter, now a healthy eleven year old. “How is it treated?”

“A B-12 pill dissolved under the tongue every day,” Joanna said.

And then I said it. “At least—” Wait. What am I saying? Her child has a disease that could be fatal, and I say “at least”? I started over. “I won’t say ‘at least.’ It’s meant to be consoling, but it’s actually insensitive. You would prefer that she has no genetic disease at all. The treatment may be simple, but I’m sure it hasn’t been easy to accept.”

I was shocked at how easily “at least” had fallen from my tongue. With our daughter’s diagnosis, I had been freshly reminded of the sting behind the phrase. “At least it’s not a brain tumor.” “At least it’s just epilepsy.” “At least she can live a relatively normal life.”

I understood why people said “at least.” My mind had conjured many horrific possibilities when Tarica’s seizures appeared out of nowhere and escalated crazily in a matter of days. Of all those possibilities, epilepsy was the least horrible. But did that mean epilepsy was a good diagnosis because it could have been worse?

No. Never. What mother would wish epilepsy—or any other disorder—on her child? Better to be healthy, no matter what other possibilities existed.

What makes me think “at least” is comforting? At least you weren’t very far along. At least the grinder didn’t take his whole hand. At least it was her arm and not her leg—or his leg and not his back. At least it was the barn that burned and not the house. At least it’s benign or operable or manageable or not life-threatening. At least he’s in heaven now.

Is it comforting to say it could be worse? It is consoling to imply someone should be grateful the situation is only bad and not terrible? Just think, I say sympathetically, of all the awful things that didn’t happen. To someone hurting, that is no comfort.

The consolation of “at least” rings hollow. And still I fell into the trap of it.

When people experience a loss, a medical diagnosis, or a death, we acknowledge their need of comfort. But too often, we approach their grief with a clinical detachment. We have weighed their grief in our balance and discovered the good and the bad within the pain. This human tendency to categorize joy and pain is why Romans 12:15 was written: “Rejoice with them that do rejoice, and weep with them that weep.” Instead of pointing out facts, we need to experience the emotions of joy and sorrow with our friends. There is no room for “at least” in this kind of comfort.

I don’t want to be a miserable comforter, like Job’s friends. I want to be a friend who bears another’s burden, who shares in the joy and the pain of another life’s as if it were my joy and my pain.

It’s the least I can do.

* * *

This is not written to any of you. Your prayers and your words have uplifted and strengthened me; I am grateful beyond description.

This is written to Stephanie, because Stephanie too often says things she lies awake over and regrets. Perhaps by writing out this lesson, she will not forget it.

*name changed to protect privacy