hand with intravenous
Sarah Biren
Sarah Biren
July 15, 2019 ·  5 min read

Kate Bowler: How to Speak to Someone Who’s Suffering

Saying the wrong things to a person in deep pain and suffering is usually an unintentional act. Everyone thinks they are being helpful and supportive, but a lot of times, we only end up making the person feel worse. They won’t always call us out on our unintended mistakes, and we just go right ahead to say the same things to the next person we see in pain, only ever coming to full realization when we find ourselves in the same position.

Stage 4 colon cancer is a lot more terrifying than it sounds when you’re the one receiving the diagnosis. Kate Bowler, historian, author, and associate professor of History of Christianity at Duke Divinity School had only been 35. Her life had been perfect until she received that heartbreaking call from the hospital in 2015. Those stomach aches she’d been treated for were symptoms of stage 4 colon cancer, and her prognosis said she had less than a year to live. 

The New York Times Bestseller didn’t stop being a firebrand. Between her chemotherapy sessions and spending time with her family, Kate launched a podcast and wrote a book, all aimed at using her experience with cancer to help people change the way they view suffering and how they discuss it with the person in pain [1].

Bowler’s book

Read and reviewed by Bill Gates, Lucy Kalanithi and several other high profile names and brands in the country, Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved tells Kate’s story of life-changing experiences following her diagnosis, lessons learned in a situation whereby “no amount of positive thinking will shrink her tumors.”

Kate had always believed in the prosperity gospel that “everything happens for a reason”. She could mold her future with her own hands if she had the right “surge of determination”. Where does this belief leave a sick person? What does it mean to someone diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer, very sick, and in extreme pain, that everything happens for a reason? Being sick opened Kate’s eyes to the insensitivity of that saying, and between holidays and treatments, Kate put together an astonishing book filed with her “irreverent, hard-won observations on dying and the ways it has taught her to live.

“Heartbreaking, surprisingly funny. [A] wonderful new memoir . . . Everything Happens belongs on the shelf alongside other terrific books about this difficult subject, like Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air and Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal. . . . It’s inspiring to see this thoughtful woman face such weighty topics with honesty and humor,” Bill Gates reviewed.

Cruel words unintended

According to Kate, she’d had her life all planned out and was taking things one step at a time in large strides. She was married to her high-school sweetheart and was ecstatic about her newborn son. At 35, she was already working towards getting her Ph.D., and suddenly, she got sick “for a reason”. What reason, exactly?

My life had this really direct momentum,” Bowler said, speaking with The New York Times columnist David Brooks at the Aspen Ideas Festival, co-hosted by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic.

All I wanted to do was get my Ph.D., then get tenure, be loved by all members of my field, and do all the shiny things you want to do when you have endless time.”

Until you don’t anymore. You have endless time up until you are hooked up to I.Vs and machines in the hospital, unable to wrap your mind around how things went south in the twinkle of an eye.

“We live in this culture that seems unable to allow people to suffer without trying to explain things to them,” she said.

Positive thinking may help a person’s mental state, but not their condition. It doesn’t change the fact that they’ll be in a lot of pain for a while. People are usually trying to be helpful when they say that everything happens for a reason and the best is yet to come, but someone in Kate’s condition would most likely be broken by those words. For what reason does she have to go through this and what “best is yet to come” out of it? 

Speaking with TIME, Kate explained that her experience has made her an incurable optimist who still believes in miracles [2]. Speaking on the American view of tragic news as tests of character, Kate said,

It is one of the oldest stories Americans tell themselves about determination and some supernatural bootstraps. The double edge to the American Dream is that those who can’t make it have lost the test or have failed. The prosperity gospel is just a Christian version of that.”

Speaking with caution to a person in pain

Four years later, Kate pulled through the worst of the illness and is becoming stronger every day. She still goes for scans every six months but today, Kate Bowler is a cancer survivor.

Kate believes that the first thing you shouldn’t do with a person in pain is trying to relate to it or attempting to make them feel better because they are not the first to be diagnosed with the condition. Everyone’s pain is different, so talking about your friend or cousin who had colon cancer as well is not going to ease the patient’s distress. 

Again, do not try to offer unsolicited advice about how they can cope with their condition or revive their formerly healthy mental state and spiritual life. They have access to Google, too. Only advise them when they request it.

Thirdly, do not make their pain and suffering seem like part of this world-dominating destiny, something that’s happening because it was written in the stars. For the most part, the person may just be dealing with a stroke of bad luck and the last thing they need to hear is that “God knows what he’s doing.” It can murder what’s left of a sick person’s faith.

Finally, Bower implores people to be there for their friends in difficult times. Loneliness and that awful feeling of abandonment can worsen anybody’s mental state, let alone a sick person dealing with physical pain. Despite your religious, social, cultural, and political differences, you just be there for them when they need human interaction the most. You don’t have to say anything. Your company alone is enough. Bowler said she had someone who would just come into the hospital, sit and knit while she rested.

She encourages people to double-check their words for underlying cruelties when speaking to sick people. You may be hurting them more than the illness.

  1. Lorenz, Taylor. How to Speak to Someone Who’s Suffering. The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2019/07/how-speak-someone-whos-suffering/593074/. Retrieved 11-07-19
  2. Editors. Kate Bowler Talks about Her Cancer Diagnosis and Her Faith. Time. https://time.com/5118044/kate-bowler-interview-cancer-faith/. Retrieved 11-07-19
  3. Bowler, Kate. Everything Happens For A Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved. Kate Bowler. https://katebowler.com/books/everything-happens-for-a-reason/. Retrieved 11-07-19