Nothing Good Comes After “At Least…” or What to Say When You Don’t Know What to Say…

I can put the brakes on a perfectly good conversation. I know it, because I have done it. In fact, I do it regularly. I wish that I didn’t have this skill… but I do. It just happened last week, for example. I was having a conversation with a pre-school teacher at the four year-old’s school. Someone I don’t know who was talking to me about a decision we are trying to make regarding the four year-old.

Teacher: “Awwww, he must be your first.”

Me: “No, he’s not, but we never [had to make this type of decision] with our first.”

Teacher: (laughing), “Well, what’s wrong with your first?” (May I pause to say that there are so very many things wrong with this question, especially when delivered by someone who fancies herself an expert in early childhood development.)

Me: “She’s dead.”

Teacher: (stunned silence)


Then only a week later, while introducing myself to some other moms as we were talking about our kids, I just flat out broke down. In tears. With strangers. Met by a collective gasp on their part when I told them that our first died of SIDS (I left out our third child, our daughter, Parker, who we lost as a result of a fatal chromosomal abnormality. I won’t get into the extreme guilt I had to work through about not including her in my list of children), and a desperate attempt on my part to re-normalize the vibe in the room. I hate it.

I hate it. I hate it. I hate it. I hate it.

(Caution: Self pity ahead) I cannot express with words how much I hate that I don’t get to talk about my children like normal parents do. I will never get to talk about my children like normal parents do. Because I am not normal. We are not “normal.” What I have been through is far less common these days than it was in pioneer days and before. In some ways, I wish I could go back in time. In those days, when you had a child that died young, or didn’t live through pregnancy (both of which, I unfortunately have), the rule was that you didn’t mention them. You moved on. You “got over it.” That was back when a) the death of a child at many different stages was FAR more common, and b) we didn’t have the sophisticated understanding of grief and the necessity of working through it and dealing with it. These days, it is quite rare to be in the club I’m in. The club that is full of the greatest people I never wanted to know. We are bereaved parents.

I have been in support groups with these wonderful people, and there is a theme that runs through our conversations… the things that people said accidentally, meaning to be comforting, that instead turned out to be so hurtful. There is an even more common theme: Those comments almost always start with the words, “at least.” Here’s a sampling (all of which I have heard from people regarding the SIDS death of my 3 ½ month old daughter, and the loss of my second daughter at 20 weeks gestation.)

At least…

- You’re young and you can have another.

- She was young and you didn’t really know her yet.

- You weren’t there when she died.

- You have each other.

- You didn’t do anything wrong.

- You have [the four year-old].

- You know you did everything you could to try to save her.

- You know you’re fertile.

and on, and on, and on. The words “at least” operate in our vernacular the same way the words “bless your heart,” or “with all due respect,” or “I don’t mean to be rude, but…” They negate the statement that follows by trying to minimize the emotion or cancel it altogether. “At least” says, “well, it could be worse.” There are many other variations on the theme, such as:

- You know, people die in war everyday, and imagine how their mother’s feel.

- It would have been so much harder if she had been sick.

Or my very “favorite,” and a common “favorite” of bereaved parents:

- She (he, they) is in a better place.

I had one person say to me, “you know marriages end because of this type of thing.”

All of these words say one thing, “it could be worse, and here is how.” This is our way of attempting to fix or minimize pain in others so that we can avoid dealing with the feelings around it ourselves. Grief is a whole bundle of big feelings. Many of them feel unmanageable. As we witness the pain of another, our natural instinct is to try to take it away. To “fix” it.

This is the truth, and if you read and understand nothing else of what I have said here, please read and understand this; we cannot fix or eliminate someone else’s pain. We are not so powerful.

So, what do you do when someone around you is grieving? How do you show support without obeying the gut instinct of trying to “fix” or “take away” the pain. It is far more simple than you can imagine. You do this: You walk along side of them. You tell them that you are sorry that they have to feel this way. You tell them that you don’t know what to say. You honor them and their feelings, and you leave your perspective and judgment out of it. You remind yourself that this is their path, and then you feel honored to be near them while they travel it. You can even silently thank your lucky stars that you are not traveling that path yourself. And most importantly, you love them. That, my friends, is the very best you can do, and it is more than enough.


  1. Colleen,
    Thank you. I won't bore you with the details, but shortly after my miscarriage I read an article where a woman had lost her husband while they were in their twenties, she was pointing out that "at least" was the worst way to start the sentence ("at least you have lots of time to find someone else") and I have been preaching this for years. Thank you for bringing it forward more and more. None of us should have to travel this path, those of us who do need our friends sometimes more than any other time in our lives and you have said it beautifully. Randee

  2. Thank you Colleen, this is wonderful advice and you say it so well.

  3. Great post! Thanks for sharing and being so honest.

  4. Absolutely positively couldn't-agree-with-you-more. I remember when Parker died, just thinking (and luckily, also telling you) - THIS JUST PLAIN FUCKING SUCKS. And there's nothing else to say except that you are loved, your family is loved.

    P.S. - Are you kidding?! I can't believe someone would say "What's wrong with your first?" Ugh. "At least" there's room for improvement in her people skills (ha, ha).

  5. I remember we talked about this, great post.

    "Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt"

  6. I can relate to this very well Colleen. I wish I couldn't relate to it but I can. You are right on with your advice for what people can do when someone near them is showing their grief. My child died in 2003 and this year I went through a divorce with my college sweetheart. The divorce is another grief process and I notice people using the "at least" statements often with me again. We all have our road to travel and our grief processes are all unique. I tell people I do not need to be "fixed" - I just need their love and support as I go through my journey.

  7. Thank you for this. As a mother who has never experienced a loss, I appreciate these words of advice.

  8. I quite often find myself saying the wrong thing to people in situations that can be deemed uncomfortable-I finally resigned myself to say exactly what you have suggested-" I am so sorry you have to go through that" there are far less blank stares and moments of uncomfortable silence in my life! People with the best of intentions (like me and probably the pre-school teacher) can cause hurt when tehy don't mean to-thank you for educating us.

  9. With this I can understand and relate and reflect on grief better. I am so grateful that you are in my life. Your words have helped me more than you will ever know and my words cannot thank you enough for your love and support.

  10. Thank you for this post and your honesty. I know from personal experience the grief and pain seem to never go away, but I have found through time it does get easier to process.

    It will be 11 years since my twins died. I am bawling typing this now and can honestly say it still hurts, but as time goes on, the hurt surfaces in shorter increments. (If that makes any sense...It doesn't get less, just has its ebbs and flows.) There are many days when I want it to just go away. Some days I can let it, some days, even after 11 years, I can't. I think/hope/pray that this is all normal. I have found over time that who/when I share are different, too. At first, I told everyone. Now, it is on an "as needed" basis. And believe me, that need changes all the time!

    On the topic of "at leasts" I think I have heard them all, too. The most hurtful one came from my own mother. Who, while I was in the hospital, waiting for the nurses to bring me my two dead babies, told me "well, at least you can have more by Christmas." WTF...my own mom???? (I was sooo upset, but now kind of think she wasn't meaning to be hurtful, just had no clue what to say and something stupid came out of her mouth instead.)

    Keep posting like this. Keep reaching out to other parents. We all need to hear your words....

    A fellow Colleen....

  11. Hugs Colleen. I wish so much that our children were still here and that we had never had the cause to meet. I can tell you that I think all of your children are proud of their mother. I have always admired how open and honest you are about your grief.

  12. Others have said but it bears repeating... Thank you. Thank you for being open enough to discuss this. My aunt lost her son, my cousin (duh) and I have always wanted to know what is the best thing I can do for her to show her my support and that I am sorry that she has to go through this. Your blog really helped. Thank you.

    On another note... I have been a follower of your blog for awhile and I am always excited to read your posts! Your are funny, insightful and a joy to read. I am a mother of a 2 1/2 year old (terrible two's anyone?) and enjoy reading your views on motherhood. Hey wait, I think you might be my celebrity crush?!?!

    Anyway - thanks for the great blog and radio shows!

    Take care,

  13. Tiffany, I'm with you--Colleen is absolutely my celebrity crush, but Colleen, I promise there is no shame in that for me! Thanks again for all of your honest posts, I learn more from you than from all the self help shows on Oprah's new network. Take care.

  14. What a great post. I have never lost a child and can't imagine the extreme pain that accompanies it. You are so right about how people try to fix or lessen your grief with words.

    I also have the keen ability to stop a conversation dead in it's tracks. Widowed at 23, I got tired of people telling me I was too young to be a widow. Finally I began telling people, "Funny, no one asked for my ID when they gave me my husband's death certificate."

    Thank you for sharing your story!

  15. This makes me vomit:

    - She was young and you didn’t really know her yet.

    Why do people think "I'm sorry" isn't enough?

  16. I cannot fully understand, and hope I don't have to honestly, but I am sorry and I do give good hugs.

  17. Jeepers. Thank you for sharing this. I know I said, "Well, at least you have the one!" to someone suffering from secondary infertility. I didn't mean to. I knew I shouldn't say it. I didn't know her well, and it just came out. Because I stick my foot in my mouth more often than anyone should have to, really.


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