Tragedy continues to strike. Here’s what not to say to someone who is hurting.
As tragedy continues to rip through the country—first in the form of a pandemic, and now in two horrific, back to back shootings—it can be hard to know what to say to someone who is hurting.
My own world was forever changed in 2017, when the house that I had lived in with my family for ten years was struck by lightning and caught fire, destroying our home and nearly everything in it. To this day, I am grateful for the countless kind words and actions of friends and strangers. These were the things that carried me through, especially in those first difficult months.
However, as is common in crisis, I received plenty of cringeworthy responses as well. The funny thing is, I noticed that most of them started the same way, with the same two words. These two terrible words came up constantly, a knee-jerk reaction to hearing my situation. Although these two words meant well, they quickly became two of the words that I hated most.
These two words were "At least."
"At least no one was hurt."
"At least it's just stuff."
"At least you get to buy all new things."
"At least you're still alive."
"At least" invalidates.
I will first qualify by saying that of course, these statements were true. I am grateful that by God's grace, my life and the lives of my family and pets were saved that night. I have learned far more deeply than most what it means when we say "material things can be replaced" (and the painful reality that, in some cases of significance or sentimental value, they cannot be). I am thankful for all of the ways we have been able to rebuild since that day.
However, I still found myself resenting that phrase. For although these words were not entirely untrue, as soon as these words came into our conversation they immediately invalidated my pain. I no longer felt like I could express what I was going through, because the person speaking clearly had a better perspective on what matters and what does not. To respond with anything other than optimism to an "At least" statement sounds ungrateful. For months after the fire, I found that not only was I contending with the grief that I felt from loss, but also with a guilt that the very same pain made me materialistic, or weak, or immature. Eventually this led to feelings of frustration towards these people, because, I concluded, they just didn't understand.
“At least” compares.
This phrase also fostered comparison of my pain and loss with the pain and loss of others. “At least” draws our attention away from being present in the grief or lament of the moment, and instead holds up a different situation (usually communicating that no matter how bad things are, they could be worse).
But the truth is, suffering is not a competition. This is not the heart that Christ has for us in times of hurt, loss, confusion or deep pain. One of the most amazing things I have discovered about God over the past few years is that He knows the pain of the entire universe and yet He does not trivialize mine. He is big enough to hold my burdens, yet He makes Himself small enough to make me feel understood. 1 Peter 5:7 encourages us to “Cast all your burdens upon Him, because He cares for you.” He does not tell me that He will take on the things that I consider burdensome only because I don’t know better. He recognizes my burdens, He sees my pain. He not only sees it, He carries it with me. Not because He needs to, but because He cares. God knows what it is like to give up everything, and He knows how it feels to not have a home. Wasn’t He born in a place that had no room for Him?
This is not a God who holds up our burdens to those of someone else, deciding which ones are heavy enough to warrant his attention. He welcomes every hurt and anxiety that we carry, whether great or small, because of the deep and caring love He has for us. For our brothers and sisters in crisis, we should do the same.
An alternative to “At least”
I sincerely don’t believe that anyone who said these words for me meant any harm; I doubt they even realized that they were alienating me with their choice of words. I believe that the reason these words are used so often in response to suffering is because we are uncomfortable sitting with suffering. Grief is often awkward, so our reflex is to draw attention back to something more positive. Focusing on the bright side is much easier than creating space for lament.
Instead of “At least,” we can offer each other presence. Oftentimes, no words will be needed. Presence may be in the form of a listening ear, asking questions instead of drawing conclusions. Presence may be in the form of physical proximity, spending quality time together, offering a hug, or being a literal shoulder to cry on. Presence may be in the form of prayer, interceding on behalf of brothers and sisters in crisis whether or not they will ever know that we are. Presence may be in the form of meeting practical needs, with a meal or transportation or a financial gift. It will sometimes be uncomfortable or awkward, and we will likely stumble through. But we can keep pointing each other to the loving, caring God who does not weigh our burdens, but welcomes them.
Samantha Ervin is the Associate Director of Training & Education at the Humanitarian Disaster Institute. She earned a M.A. in Humanitarian & Disaster Leadership at Wheaton College ('19) and M.S. Management ('17) / B.S. Social Entrepreneurship ('16) at Worcester Polytechnic Institute.