Recently I came across an article entitled “How to Talk to the Angel of Death,” by Kate Bowler (New York Times, Jan. 28). In this poignant article a woman with stage IV colon cancer discussed what to say and not say to people suffering with a catastrophic illness.
I find we sometimes stumble with our words in searching for the right thing to say. It is often an awkward attempt to express feelings in the face of an experience that many of us have never known. Yet, terminal illness is a road that no one should have to travel alone. Perhaps our quiet presence is what is most important for those who are suffering.
Here is an excerpt of her touching essay:
“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.
Some people minimize spiritually by reminding me that cosmically, death isn’t the ultimate end. “It doesn’t matter, in the end, whether we are here or ‘there.’ It’s all the same,” said a woman in the prime of her youth. She emailed this message to me with a lot of praying-hand emoticons. I am a professor at a Christian seminary, so a lot of Christians like to remind me that heaven is my true home, which makes me want to ask them if they would like to go home before me. Maybe now?
Atheists can be equally bossy by demanding that I immediately give up any search for meaning. One told me that my faith was holding me hostage to an inscrutable God that I should let go of this theological guesswork and realize that we are living in a neutral universe. But the message is the same: Stop complaining and accept the world as it is.
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.
A tragedy is like a fault line. A life is split into a before and an after, and most of the time, the before was better. Few people will let you admit that out loud. Sometimes those who love you best will skip that first horrible step of saying: “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry this is happening to you.”
But the impulse to offer encouragement is a perfect one. There is tremendous power in touch, in gifts and in affirmations when everything you knew about yourself might not be true anymore. I am a professor, but will I ever teach again? I’m a mom, but for how long? A friend knits me socks and another drops off cookies, and still another writes a funny email or takes me to a concert. These seemingly small efforts are anchors that hold me to the present, that keep me from floating away on thoughts of an unknown future.
They say to me, like my sister Maria did on one very bad day: “Yes, the world is changed, dear heart, but do not be afraid. You are loved, you are loved. You will not disappear. I am here.”
Kate Bowler is an assistant professor at Duke Divinity School, the author of “Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved” and the host of the forthcoming podcast “Everything Happens.”