What to Say When You Meet the Angel of Death at a Party

Katie Bowler lives with stage IV cancer. Her essay in the New York Times is elegantly pastoral. It is superb analysis. She was diagnosed as a young mother in her mid-30s.

“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. I live for three months, take a deep breath and hope to start over again. I will probably do this for the rest of my life. Whatever that means,” Dr. Bowler writes. She is an assistant professor at Duke Divinity School and the author of “Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved.”

“When my scan is over, I need to make clear to my friends and my family that though I pray to be declared cured, I must be grateful,” she writes. “I have three more months of life. Hallelujah.”

The thrust of her article is the painful awkwardness of having a conversation with, well, someone in Dr. Bowler’s state of health. “What does the suffering person really want? How can you navigate the waters left churning in the wake of tragedy?” she writes. “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” and “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.”

There are even those who “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?”

There are the “teachers” who want to remind Dr. Bowler to learn all she can from her circumstances. “I hope you have a ‘Job’ experience,” one man told her. “I can’t think of anything worse to wish on someone,” she writes. “God allowed Satan to rob Job of everything, including his children’s lives. Do I need to lose something more to learn God’s character? Sometimes I want every know-it-all to send me a note when they face the grisly specter of death, and I’ll send them a poster of a koala that says, ‘Hang in there!’”

Lastly, the solvers. “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.”

“There is a trite cruelty in the logic of the perfectly certain,” Bowler writes. “Those people are not simply trying to give me something. They are tallying up the sum of my life — looking for clues, sometimes for answers — for the purpose of pronouncing a verdict. But I am not on trial. To so many people, I am no longer just myself. I am a reminder of a thought that is difficult for the rational brain to accept: that the elements that constitute our bodies might fail at any moment.”

Please read her entire article HERE.

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