What's Tony Thinking

What to Say (And What Not to Say) To Someone in Trouble (Archive Edition)


This summer I am re-running a few of our best past posts. This one first appeared in February 2018.

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 here is a reflection on 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.

Bowler groups the unhelpful into three categories: the minimizer, the teacher, and the solver. You can (definitely hope you will) read her full descriptions of each of those and how they exhaust someone who is already vulnerable and depleted. But here’s a bit of what Bowler has to say,

“What does the suffering person really want? How can you navigate the waters left churning in the wake of tragedy? I find that the people least likely to know the answer to these questions can be lumped into three categories: minimizers, teachers and solvers.

“The minimizers are those who think I shouldn’t be so upset because the significance of my illness is relative. These people are very easy to spot because most of their sentences begin with “Well, at least ….” Minimizers often want to make sure that suffering people are truly deserving before doling out compassion . . .

“The second exhausting type of response comes from the teachers, who focus on how this experience is supposed to be an education in mind, body and spirit. “I hope you have a ‘Job’ experience,” one man said bluntly. I can’t think of anything worse to wish on someone. God allowed Satan to rob Job of everything, including his children’s lives. Do I need to lose something more to learn God’s character? Sometimes I want every know-it-all to send me a note when they face the grisly specter of death, and I’ll send them a poster of a koala that says, “Hang in there!”

“The hardest lessons come from the solutions people, who are already a little disappointed that I am not saving myself. There is always a nutritional supplement, Bible verse or mental process I have not adequately tried. ‘Keep smiling! Your attitude determines your destiny!’ said a stranger named Jane in an email, having heard my news somewhere, and I was immediately worn out by the tyranny of prescriptive joy.”

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 can do this.”

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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