What's Tony Thinking

What to Say (and not say) To Someone In Trouble


Possibly you saw a piece in the New York Times earlier this month from Kate Bowler? Bowler is a mid-thirties woman and mom, a professor at Duke Divinity School, an author and podcaster and a person with Stage Four colon cancer.

“What To Say When You Meet the Angel of Death at a Party,” the column linked above is a reflection of the kinds of things people say to someone who has an incurable cancer. Many of those things aren’t helpful. Some are worse than that.

She groups the unhelpful into three categories: the minimizer, the teacher, and the solver. You can (definitely hope you will) read her descriptions of each of those and how they exhaust someone who is already vulnerable and depleted.

Bowler also offers a few ideas about things that are more helpful to say when we are with someone who is sick, dying, suffering or in pain (which is all of us at one time or another, and many of us quite a bit of the time.)

Acknowledgement helps. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry this is happening to you.” “Oh, hon, what a year you’ve had.”

When I see someone for the first time after they’ve had a death in their family, I try to acknowledge it saying something like, “I’m sorry for your loss.” I remember how odd it seemed to me in the weeks right after my sister’s death, or that of one of my parents, when I would encounter someone who knew, but who said nothing — no acknowledgement. Just felt weird. Acknowledgement helps.

So does love. “I love you.” We have a saying in our family when someone is going through a hard time — “Remember, we all love you.” Bowler says this becomes problematic when love morphs into praise. The praise becomes too much. Or it sounds like hearing your eulogy when you’re still here.

Preferable to praise is encouragement. And that seems to me true not only in situations like Bowler’s. Encouragement is better than praise, most of the time, with kids. It is good with colleagues and friends. Praise says, “You’re the greatest.” “You’re wonderful.” (Okay, sometimes that’s nice.) Encouragement is different. “This is really hard. I believe in you. You’re not alone.”

Bowler is out with a new book Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved.  What a great title, ‘eh? (She’s Canadian) With grace, Bowler argues that such easy platitudes aren’t true. Not all suffering can be explained. Here her personal journey and scholarship converge. Bowler studies and writes about the the “prosperity gospel” in America. The assumption of the prosperity gospel is that if your faith is right, health and prosperity will be yours. Another lie we love. But Bowler is fair and empathetic in her study of the prosperity gospel and those who are drawn to it. She depicts real people, not cartoon versions.

Which take us back to what to say, and to not to say, to someone in trouble. They aren’t a type or an illness or victim. They are a person, complex, unique and much like you.


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