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'Everything happens for a reason' and 7 other things you must never say to those who are suffering

Kate Bowler was unexpectedly diagnosed with Stage IV cancer at age 35. In this extract from her critically acclaimed book Everything happens for a reason and other lies I've loved (SPCK), she lists some of the most unhelpful phrases she's since heard 

1. “Well, at least…”

Whoa. Hold up there. Were you about to make a comparison? At least it’s not…what? Stage V Cancer?. Don’t minimize

2. “In my long life, I’ve learned that…”

Do you want a medal? I get it! You lived forever. Well, some people are worried that they won’t, or that things are so hard that they won’t want to. So ease up on the life lessons.. Life is a privilege, not a reward.

3. “It’s going to get better. I promise.”

Well, fairy godmother, that’s going to be a tough road to hoe when things go badly.

4. “God needed an angel.”

This one takes the cake because a) it makes God look sadistic and needy and b) angels are, according to Christian tradition, created from scratch. Not dead people looking for a cameo in Ghost. You see how confusing it is when we just pretend that the deceased return to help you find your car keys or make pottery?

5. “Everything happens for a reason.”

The only thing worse than saying this is pretending that you know the reason. I’ve had hundreds of people tell me the reason for my cancer. Because of my sin. Because of my unfaithfulness. Because God is fair. Because God is unfair. Because of my aversion to brussel sprouts. I mean, no one is short of reasons. So if someone tells you this, make sure you are there when they go through the worst moment of their life and start offering your own. When someone is drowning, the only thing better than someone throwing them a life preserver is handing them a reason.

6. “I’ve done some research and…”

I thought I should listen to my oncologist and my nutritionist and my team of specialists, but it turns out that I should be listening to you. Yes, please, tell me more about the medical secrets that only one flax seed provider in Orlando knows. Wait, let me get a pen.

7. “When my aunt had cancer…”

My darling dear, I know you are trying to relate to me. Now you see me and you are reminded that terrible things have happened in the world. But, guess what? That is where I live, in the valley of the shadow of death. But now I’m on vacation because I’m not in the hospital or dealing with my mess. Do I have to take my sunglasses off and join you in the saddest journey down memory lane or do you mind if I finish my mojito?

8. “So how are the treatments going? How are you really?”

This is the toughest one of all. I can hear you trying to understand my world and be on my side. But picture the worst thing that has ever happened to you. Got it? Now try to put it in a sentence. Now say it aloud 50 times a day. Does your head hurt? Do you feel sad? Me too. So let’s just see if I want to talk about it today because sometimes I do and sometimes I want a hug and a recap of American Ninja Warrior.

Kate Bowler is an assistant professor in the school of divinity at Duke University. This blog is extracted from her latest book Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I've Loved (SPCK) and is used with permission. 

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