How to Speak to Someone Who’s Suffering

A cancer patient wants the world to understand that bad things can happen to good people.

A hand rests on a hospital bed.
Virojt Changyencham / Getty

Kate Bowler felt like her life was just beginning. At 35, she was married to the love of her life. She had a young son and a dream job as a historian of Christianity. She had written a book, Blessed, about the origins of the notion that good things happen to good people.

Then one day, in 2015, she received a call from a physician’s assistant. The cause of some intense stomach pains she had recently sought treatment for, she was told, was Stage 4 colon cancer. The physician’s assistant said Bowler would be lucky to make it through the next year.

Many people who receive her diagnosis begin to get their affairs in order and spend their remaining time with family in between treatments. Bowler did all that, but also launched a podcast called Everything Happens, on which she talks with people about what they learned in dark times. She wrote another book. And she set about changing the way people view and talk about suffering in America.

As Bowler sees it, the idea that suffering is always rewarded is deeply rooted in both Christian and American values. For years, she was convinced that if you put in work, you’ll eventually reap the rewards. She worked through holidays and vacations, schlepping her computer to the beach to finish a paper or project.

“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.”

But Bowler’s commitment to the notion that everything happens for a reason went out the door once her diagnosis hit. Now she believes that idea is deeply problematic. “We live in this culture that seems unable to allow people to suffer without trying to explain things to them,” she said.

It’s common for people to tell themselves or others that the best is yet to come. But promoting that idea, Bowler argued, can be cruel to those who might consider their best days far behind them.

Now several years beyond her diagnosis, Bowler has moved to scans every six months and is trying to savor every day as she continues treatment. She said there are several big ways people can better speak to those who are suffering. First, she said, each person’s pain is uniquely his or her own, so avoid trying to relate to someone’s struggle. Don’t bring up your aunt with cancer or your friend who also went through a bad, but unrelated, situation.

Second, don’t Google someone’s symptoms or suggest a bunch of solutions unless the person actively seeks your help; most likely, the person will already be aware of everything. And third, drawing from her scholarship Bowler encouraged people not to imply that someone’s suffering is at all part of God’s master plan or a direct result of a choice that person made. The cruelty of life can be random. Often, it’s just bad luck.

The most important thing, Bowler said, no matter what religious beliefs you have, if any, is that when someone in your life is suffering, you’re there for them. Bowler had friends who faded away from her life after her diagnosis because they didn’t know how to confront her tragedy. But the type of person she found most helpful when she was at her lowest, she said, was someone who just “shows up, doesn’t ask for anything, and just knits in front of you.”