Avoid Saying “At Least” When Consoling the Bereaved

If you begin forming the words “at least” — STOP!

Do not, do not, do NOT let that phrase pass your lips (or fingertips)! If you think uttering (or writing) “at least” to console anyone who is grieving, I advise this:

Bite a hole in your tongue (or slam your fingers in a door) to  prevent yourself from saying “at least.”
(Can you tell I feel strongly about this?)

Here’s why:

“At least,” by definition, shrinks and plays down a thing, reducing it to its smallest component. It minimizes. It downplays and lessens importance. It diminishes and disparages, and when applied to grief it belittles the perceived importance of the loss.

Any intended consolation beginning with “At least you …” will not console. Instead, it isolates mourners, proclaiming their devastating loss to be less calamitous to others than if feels to them.

Examples of “at least” statements (and how they come across to the bereaved) and why they’re so hurtful:

  • “At least you didn’t have any children” (so you won’t have to “deal with” them or their grief and you can just pick up and go on).
    What if the couple privately, desperately wanted children? What if they planned to conceive or adopt within the next year or two? What if one was already pregnant at the time of (her own or her partner’s) death?
  • “At least you (can) have more children” (so you shouldn’t be upset over losing this one).
    One child’s presence cannot “replace” another. The loss of a child (at any age) is a grief unlike any other. Never diminish it. Never assume “replacement fertility” is possible, either — because it may not be, and even if it were, “replacing” one who is lost is not possible.
  • “At least the children are young enough they won’t miss their [parent, grandparent, sibling…]” (so it really won’t be that hard on them).
    Grieving families need to know loved ones won’t be forgotten. Children who’ve lost loved ones, even at very young ages, are impacted in ways only families in similar situations can comprehend.
  • “At least your kids are all grown up” (so you won’t have to raise them alone; also implies adult kids will be “okay” with the loss).
    The surviving parent is now left alone to weather the years-long, unrelenting upheavals of grief by him- or herself. The adult children are burdened with their own grief as well as their concerns for their surviving parent.
  • “At least you weren’t married very long” (so you can’t miss your spouse that much).
    The loss of future, anticipated experiences runs as deep as the loss of familiar comfort and companionship. Those widowed after fewer years together often feel deeply “cheated” by the timing.
  • “At least you had [however many] years together” (so you had more than your share and shouldn’t complain it came to an end).
    A lifetime shared is irrevocably altered by the shearing of one’s “better half.” In A Grief Observed C.S. Lewis compared the loss of a spouse to the loss of a limb which, even when healed, leaves the amputee forever changed.

If you’re cringing now because you remember saying “at least” in past attempts to console, remember that you meant well — at least you tried. (Now that you know, you’ll do better next time.)

Please share your thoughts on this topic. Thanks!

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