The one truly shitty thing about growing up is learning about pain. About heartache and loss. And I don’t know about you, but the older I get the more there seems to be – for me and everyone around me. It’s the inevitability of statistics – the more time spent on the planet the more likely you are to experience those rare but defining agonies. And no matter how awful these matters are, they can change who we are. In fact it would be strange if they didn’t.
What can make things better is having people be there for you. Each situation is so vastly different – but somehow your friends or family can empathise and help you through those tough times. People use their own experiences to create a comparative state of empathy, giving us the ability to help someone who’s in pain and hopefully teaching us to be generally kinder as we realise that everyone is indeed going through something.
To rid you of this vague rhetoric I’ll use my own most acute and most recent painful experience as an example. I was going through a very traumatic and painful break up. At the beginning I went through afternoons and evenings with friends, bawling and laughing and analysing. A god-awfully exhausting time of my life. But as I slowly recovered and became myself again there was one specific means of ‘comfort’ that never ceased. I was smily and looking strong and over the worst of it, and for some reason, people started using this one little phrase over and over…
That habit of comparing someone’s situation with something much worse in order to – what? – make them see how fortunate they are? Make them grateful that it ‘wasn’t that bad‘? What a magnificently insensitive and ingenuous way of trying to end a conversation that’s clearly making you uncomfortable. I understand the need to do it – it’s a kind of panic mode. And I can’t lambaste everyone who’s ever said this to someone, because I’m pretty sure EVERYONE has said this at some point. I have – but I’m very aware of it now. It’s intended as a way of lessening someone’s pain, I suppose, with the typically unintentional result being that it’s essentially belittling that person’s right to feel pain. Whether you mean it or not – you’re telling someone that they aren’t allowed to mourn or be sad or angry, because it could have been worse.
Similar to this is the ‘bright side’ approach. Which also comes with that phrase I now loathe. This is the patronising way of making someone feel bad about feeling bad, because perhaps SOME good came of the situation. Imagine losing your father who you love dearly, and being told, “at least he left you loads of money“? Pretty fucked up, right? That’s not going to make the pain lessen and it’s certainly not going to make you feel any better about losing someone.
Over a good two years I was told things like this. And I didn’t realise how messed up it was until it occurred to me that I remember every, single ‘at least’ that I was given. And how much I resent it. The thing is, no matter how much pain you’re in, and how much you open up to people in order to get over it, there is always, always A LOT that goes unsaid. Because some things don’t really need to be said to anyone else, particularly after a relationship between two people. I mean, I shouldn’t need to make a list of every awful thing done to me in order for a friend to acknowledge how much pain I was in and how devastating it was, right?
So if you’re even in a situation of needing to comfort someone and you hear yourself start, just stop. ‘Cause if you go ahead you might as well add a hearty double-pat on the head. Its condescending, it’s unfair and worst of all – it does absolutely NOTHING to make that person feel better.
These are some things I was told:
At least you didn’t have kids.
At least you’re still young…
At least it was only a few years and not, like, you know, a lot.
At least you learnt a lot. (FUCK you a lot by the way. If I told you what I ‘learnt’ your skin would crawl.)
And some other stuff that would curdle your custard.
The point being that whether your intentions are good – or even out of frustration at someone’s continued sadness/being down – YOU don’t get to quantify their pain by using parameters of agony. You don’t get to tell someone that they essentially aren’t allowed to to hurt because it could be worse or because certain things are better now that it’s happened.
Just be there. Just listen and hug and call the ex horrible names because every now and then that helps. But never, ever start a sentence with ‘at least’…