Sunday, March 11, 2018

How to comfort the suffering

Every 90 days I lie in a whirling CT machine, dye coursing through my veins, and the doctors look to see whether the tumors in my liver are growing. If they are not, the doctors smile and schedule another scan. The rhythm has been the same since my doctors told me I had stage IV colon cancer two and a half years ago. ...

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. ...

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. ...

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. ...

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.” Hope may prevent them from acknowledging how much has already been lost. But acknowledgment is also a mercy. It can be a smile or a simple “Oh, hon, what a year you’ve had.” It does not ask anything from me but makes a little space for me to stand there in that moment. Without it, I often feel like I am starring in a reality program about a woman who gets cancer and is very cheerful about it.

After acknowledgment must come love. This part is tricky because when friends and acquaintances begin pouring out praise, it can sound a little too much like a eulogy. I’ve had more than one kindly letter written about me in the past tense, when I need to be told who I might yet become.

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, NYT, on just loving