What (Not) to Say

One of the books I purchased after my brother David died was Kate Bowler's Everything Happens for A Reason (and Other Lies I've Loved). To be honest, I've yet to read the body of the book. I bought it solely because of the appendices in the back.

Yes, I know. Who buys a book for the appendices?

However, they are necessary reading. The first is called "Absolutely Never Say This To People Experiencing Terrible Times: A Short List." And the second, "Give This A Go, See How It Works: A Short List."

Like many of us, I struggle with knowing what to say to someone who has recently experienced loss or tragedy or is in the midst of something difficult. I'm afraid I'll say the wrong thing, make it awkward, or remind the person of something they'd rather not be reminded of.

My default is to say nothing, which historically has ended up with hurt feelings, relational confusion ("I thought you cared!"), and some form of me having to apologize for being a jerk.

I like what Brene Brown has to say about speaking to someone going through something difficult. Paraphrasing a bit, she says you should always lean towards saying something to someone going through a difficult time. Don't be afraid that you're going to remind them of something they'd rather forget. They're living with their grief or sadness constantly. You can't remind them. All you can do is let them know you see them and you care about them.

Anyway, I bought Kate Bowler's book because it's a tool guide for me in knowing what to say and what not to say. And I wanted to share it with you. I'll leave some things out to protect Ms. Bowler's copyright and encourage you to go buy the book yourself :)

Appendix 1: Absolutely Never Say This To People Experiencing Terrible Times: A Short List

  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.

  1. "It's going to get better. I promise."

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

  1. "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?

  1. "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 Brussels sprouts. I mean, no one is short of reasons. So if people tell you this, make sure you are there when they go through the cruelest moments of their lives, and start offering your own. When someone is drowning, the only thing worse than failing to throw them a life preserver is handing them a reason.

Appendix 2: Give This A Go, See How It Works: A Short List

  1. “I’d love to bring you a meal this week. Can I email you about it?”

Oh, thank goodness. I am starving, but mostly I can never figure out something to tell people that I need, even if I need it. But really, bring me anything. Chocolate. A potted plant. A set of weird erasers. I remember the first gift I got that wasn’t about cancer and I was so happy I cried. Send me funny emails filled with YouTube clips to watch during chemotherapy. Do something that suits your gifts. But most important, bring me presents!

  1. "I am so grateful to hear about how you're doing and just know that I'm on your team."

You mean I don’t have to give you an update? You asked someone else for all the gory details? Whew. Great! Now I get to feel like you are both informed and concerned. So don’t gild the lily. What you have said is amazing, so don’t screw it up now by being a Nosy Nellie. Ask a question about any other aspect of my life.

  1. “Oh, my friend, that sounds so hard.”

Perhaps the weirdest thing about having something awful happen is the fact that no one wants to hear about it. People tend to want to hear the summary but they don’t usually want to hear it from you. And that it was awful. So simmer down and let them talk for a bit. Be willing to stare down the ugliness and sadness. Life is absurdly hard, and pretending it isn’t is exhausting.

4. Silence

The truth is that no one knows what to say. It’s awkward. Pain is awkward. Tragedy is awkward. People’s weird, suffering bodies are awkward. But take the advice of one man who wrote to me with his policy: Show up and shut up.

Anthony Parrott

Anthony Parrott

Washington, DC