On one hand, there’s an element of truth in these statements that could lead a person to issue gratitude for what they do have rather than what they do not have. However, all of the statements are judgmental and opinionated. They deem to know better than the struggling person what would be worse for that person. To me at the time of my daughter’s death, the prospect of raising a severely disabled child seemed far less daunting than facing a future with no child at all.
Furthermore, this method of comparative trials can be devastating for those who are suffering with the “at least” situation. You may be telling your friend that they are blessed that their child died rather than ending up severely disabled, but what about all those who are raising severely disabled children? What is their comfort in this situation? What if someone has been physically abused? What about all of those people who do have cancer or who have lost multiple limbs or who are homeless? What does the “at least” statement that puts them in the worst case scenario do for their self-esteem, their confidence, and their motivation as they wrestle with difficult challenges in life?
It also can seem that when someone creates purportedly worse scenarios, their examples actually downplay the suffering that people have endured. Trauma is trauma, and all of it is devastating to those who are undergoing it. While it might seem comforting to some to pretend there is a worse case scenario, the reality is that the person undergoing challenges doesn’t need to hear those comparisons. What they need to hear is support for them in their own struggles. They need to come to terms with what they are dealing with, not what someone else has endured. What they need is not to be unintentionally judged for not suffering enough to merit sympathy or empathy.
The reality is that every human on this planet endures challenges and issues throughout their lives. Each of us has our own struggles, and each of us handles them differently. There really is that there is no better or worse when it comes to suffering. The reality is that the challenges we all endure are just different. The differences may lie in the type of trauma, the severity of the trauma, and the response of the individuals to the traumas. All of the various elements create unique situations. Each of the people involved must work through these struggles on their own but hopefully with a lot of support of those around them. As we work through these traumas, sometimes successfully and sometimes not, our souls grow and change. In my belief system, these are the struggles we are each meant to face to help us become the best people that we can be.
One of the hardest comments I had to endure in my time of being homebound and mostly bedbound was the statement from clueless people that they would think their lives were challenging until they looked at mine and then realized how much worse it could be. (Yes, they said this to me directly.) These people made me into the the worst case “at least” scenario, and they used my suffering to bring themselves dysfunctional comfort about their own struggles. That doesn’t feel great when you are the one at the bottom of the heap. Rather than making such awkward and painful comments to those you know who are struggling, the best thing to say is “I’m sorry you are struggling.” Or grieving. Or hurting. Or fighting for your life. Whatever it is that the person is enduring that you wish they didn’t have to go through, tell them that you wish they weren’t undergoing such a difficult challenge. Then, if you really want to show your support, ask them what you can do to make their burdens lighter during their time of need. Those are the kind of friends people need when they are in crisis.
© 2015 Elizabeth Galen, Ph.D., Green Heart Guidance, LLC