Gosh the New York Times has been hitting my sweet spot of inspiration lately. Not sure if you’ve read this beautifully expressed piece by Kate Bowler, “What to Say When You Meet the Angel of Death at a Party,” but it’s an exploration of the problem of not knowing what to say to someone facing a hardship or a loss. Bowler has cancer and reviews the many ways her conversations grind to a halt because someone either says the wrong thing or says nothing (literally) because it can be really hard to come up with the right thing to say.
She narrows the field of people you’ll encounter as follows:
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.
She describes each type of person and as you read through the descriptions of how each of the people in these categories talk to someone who is suffering you may either find yourself nodding in familiarity having known one of these types, or cringing as you recognize yourself as one. Here’s an example of what she means:
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.
This resonates with me because I’ve been on both sides of it- people who find out you’re depressed, or have been in therapy, or have self-harmed often have no idea what to say to you, and so they often either say nothing or the wrong thing (or at least something that isn’t quite the right thing…). “Have you tried not being depressed?” is maybe my personal favorite.
But I also know what it’s like to want to say something and not being able to find the words. Someone I know well recently underwent a terrible personal loss and I have struggled with how to talk to her about it. In the end I think what I want to say is simply what I would want to hear… “I’m so sorry. Please know that I care and am willing to help if I can.”
It doesn’t ever need to be more complicated than that. No advice. No commiseration. No scolding. No comparing. Just kindness and a willingness to back that kindness up.