Thursday, February 21, 2013

"But it could be worse!"

If there's one phrase I hate more than "at this point in time..." it is "But it could be worse!"

"Your baby was bon at xyz weeks? Mine was born SO MUCH EARLIER! Be grateful because it could be worse!"

"Your child can't talk? Ha! It could be worse! Mine can't walk!"

"Your kid has cancer? But it's treatable? Well, it could be worse; it could be the kind that would KILL her!"

"Your kid has a fatal birth defect? Whatever. At least you don't have to watch him suffer and die!"

Yes, all of these things have been said to me and to people I know. I know what you are thinking: the statements are mocking and hurtful. All cancer is bad, whether it is the "easy" treatable kind or the rare kind. Loosing a child is hard, whether it is shortly after birth or after a long illness. The people who are saying "it could be worse" are really saying, "Suck it up and deal with it because there is someone out there who has it worse than you. No one wants to hear your whining."

While the examples I gave above are indeed extreme, the fact that people often take a certain situation and remind you "But it could be worse!" isn't extreme. It isn't new. Often, these people want to pull you out of your own suffering and make you feel better by reminding you of how good you have it- because they (or someone else) had it "worse." At its heart "it could be worse!" is both an effort to pull people out of their sorrow and a cry for acknowledgement of their (or someone else's) pain.

Whatever the desired effect is, that phrase, however, just makes them feel bad. Sadness, grief, anger and the like are complex emotions and they are all present in stresful situations. People who are reminded "it could be worse!" may feel like they are being ungrateful or overreacting to their stressful situation. The truth is, they likely aren't. Most people who are dealing with a crisis know it could be worse and are intensely grateful that it isn't "worse." Yet the knowledge of "worse" doesn't make their situation any "better."

"Better" and "worse" are also subjective. The person who is told that a child dying at birth is "better" than watching a child suffer might envy the other parents- not because they want to see their child suffer but because the other parents had more physical time with their child. Likewise, the parents who saw a child suffer may envy the parents who didn't see their child suffer from a painful illness. In an effort to remind the first parents of this, they dismiss their feelings by crying, "Suck it up, buttercup, because we had it worse than you!" The truth isn't that one situation is better or worse than another; all the situations are hard. It's just that there is a silver lining, however crummy that silver lining might be, and that silver lining is something other people want.

When a child skins his knee, you don't tell them to stop crying because "it could be worse! Some people break their leg when they fall off a bike!" No, instead you offer a hug, a kiss, clean the wound and put on a band-aid. That's what people in crisis situations really need:  a hug, a listening ear, a shoulder to cry, a cup of tea. They don't need their feelings dismissed or rejected. They need them acknowledged before they can begin to heal.

What can you say to someone going through a crisis? While it depends on what is going on, some helpful phrases might be:
I'm sorry for your loss.
I am here if you need to talk.
Call me if you want to talk. (or call your friend!)
Can I bring you a meal?
May I coordinate a meal service for you?
May I provide _____ (housecleaning, yard work, etc) for you?
I am thinking/praying for you.
Your feelings are valid and normal.
You are not a bad person for being angry/upset/mad/fustrated/etc.

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