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

12 thoughts on “The Least Kind of Comfort

  1. I too want to remember this Stephanie. I’ve been following along with your story and praying for your family, knowing that even though it’s all I can do, it is the most powerful thing I can do. I have been on the receiving end and giving end of “at least”. I was diagnosed with Breast cancer in July, and I am one of 3 people in my church who are all going through treatment for cancer at the same time. I think in some ways our tendency to think “at least” is a feeble attempt to find hope in a bad situation. But I want to remember your edifying scripture choice and be more faithful to “Rejoice with them that do rejoice, and weep with them that weep.” To not be so quick to want to find them a reason to hope. Ultimately our hope is in the Lord and his mercies. I know first hand that the prayers, cards, and hugs of my brothers and sisters in Christ are what give me hope because they point me back to Jesus. I couldn’t walk this road by myself, I need their support. Add me to your support team, I am still praying!

    • Thank you for sharing, Kim. I am sorry to hear of the cancer diagnosis. I’m praying that God will show Himself strong to you through this and that His name would be glorified in your body and life.

      I appreciated your thoughts on hope. You made me reevaluate my careless belief that we humans can give hope to each other. I’m no longer so sure we can. It’s like one drowning man saying to another drowning man, “Here, take my hand. You’ll be fine.” But we can say to each other, “Look, there’s the Savior’s Hand!” Only God and His Word give true hope. Perhaps this is why our efforts to give hope to each other can hurt: We aren’t equipped to do it. But we can rejoice and weep and–as you said–point each other to Jesus. Thank you so much for your thoughts. And for your prayers. We do need each other.

  2. Ouch. I’m thinking of all the callous remarks I have said over the years. A the scary thing is probably there is oodles more that I can’t remember – or never even considered how they must have hurt the hearer.

    May I remember to keep my lips shut and just rejoice or weep as needed.

  3. when I was pregnant with my third child, the doctor told me she would be stillborn or retarded. By the time we got back to the car I was in tears and my 3 and 5 year old asked what was wrong and I told them the docror said the baby would be sick and maybe die…there response was it was Jesus’ baby too and he would take care of it…sometimes we need to remember that kind of faith and put it in his hands. He is always there to carry our burdens for us.

    • When my daughter was 5 or 6 years old, the song playing in the car was Toby Keith’s ‘Who’s That Man Running My Life’ about a man who is watching his ex-wife with her new husband, raising his kids, living in their old house, etc. The chorus asks ‘who’s that man running my life’. My daughter was in the back seat and out of the blue said ‘God’. I asked her what she meant and she said ‘God is running his life’. I try to remember that and remind myself when I need it, which seems to be quite often lately.

  4. “At least” you’re trying to break this habit! I’ve been on the receiving end of this phrase and hate it, but then turn around and say it too, and hate it just as much. Thanks for the reminder!

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