Oct 20

“The Etiquette of Illness” by Susan Halpern

Although I’ve already addressed a related topic (see “What Not to Say When Someone’s in Crisis”), when it comes to how to be with a sick or grieving loved one there’s more to add.
One of the main things I took away from reading Will Schwalbe‘s 2012 The End of Your Life Book Club (see previous post) was his use of info from therapist Susan Halpern‘s 2004 The Etiquette of Illness in his ongoing frequent conversations with his terminally ill mom.

Here’s what Halpern suggests when relating to someone who’s sick:

#1 “Ask: Do you feel like talking about how you feel?”

#2 “Don’t ask if there’s anything you can do. Suggest things, or if it’s not intrusive, just do them.”

#3 “You don’t have to talk all the time. Sometimes just being there is enough.”

Taking Number One to heart in his regular encounters with his mom, Schwalbe knew that rather than keep asking her how she was feeling he could ask if she even felt like talking about how she was feeling. There’s a significant difference.

Halpern really gets the struggle: “Of course we don’t know what to say…There is no training program for what to say, and some of us, happily, have very little experience. Some people I have met have felt abandoned in hard times by good friends. Sometimes people who are ill and feeling abandoned will call their friends, but that is rare. It is the role of the ‘well person’ to reach out. While it can be hard to initiate contact, doing so brings pleasure and solace to both parties.”

Additional quotes from The Etiquette of Illness:

When people are suffering, they’re not open to hearing horror stories about others with similar maladies. There is less capacity for compassion at such moments.

When we help, we are in a potentially overpowering position.

Compassion occurs when we open our feelings to the feelings of another person, without judgement, pity, or a need to fix. It is an act of holding the fullness of feelings of another in our awareness and feeling suffering or joy with him or her; without becoming lost in the feeling.

Publishers Weekly‘s summary of Halpern’s contributions: “…[She] believes that what we say depends on the individual, the relationship and one’s own self-consciousness. So long as the words come from the heart, it is the expression of true compassionate feeling that will be remembered by the recipient.”

Feb 22

“Everything Happens for a Reason”: Or NOT

It’s a book title that says it all: Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved. Professor Kate Bowler of Duke Divinity School, age 35 and known for her previous writing on the “prosperity gospel” (Blessed), has now had some life- and mind-changing circumstances via Stage Four cancer.

What is the prosperity gospel? Per Bowler (The New York Times): “…the belief that God grants health and wealth to those with the right kind of faith.” Have the wrong kind, then, and you could be screwed. Have the right kind and…hey, so, what happened to Bowler’s just rewards for living the Christian way?

“Bowler points out the ironies of fighting a deadly battle against her own body,” states Kirkus Reviews, “while relating to a strand of Christianity that teaches that faith, holiness, and confidence will provide any sort of blessing or healing the believer needs.”

Author Glennon Doyle reviewing Everything Happens for a Reason: “Her writing is naked, elegant, and gripping—she’s like a Christian Joan Didion. I left Kate’s story feeling more present, more grateful, and a hell of a lot less alone.”

And Amy K. Butler, minister: “The Kate Bowler you will come to know in this book is 100 percent real: honest, brave, holy, ridiculous, profane, hilarious, human—her fierce and beautiful words will make you ugly-cry and laugh out loud inappropriately in public places, and they will make you long for the courage to tell the truth about your life.”

In addition to chronicling her medical as well as theological struggles, Bowler offers tips in Everything Happens for a Reason about how to be there for someone in your life who’s in difficult straits. One example per NPR,She writes that sometimes silence is the best response: ‘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’.”

And she strongly advises against this question: “How are the treatments going and how are you really?” Actually, says Bowler, This is the toughest one of all. I can hear you trying to be in my world and be on my side. But picture the worst thing that’s ever happened to you. Got it? Now try to put it in a sentence. Now say it aloud 50 times a day. Does your head hurt? Do you feel sad? Me too. So let’s just see if I want to talk about it today, because sometimes I do and sometimes I want a hug and a recap of American Ninja Warrior.”

In list form, 10 things Bowler says you can do and say for the struggling women in your life (Female First), some with brief excerpts from her explanations. (Click on the link for further details.)

  1. Tell her she’s lovely and wonderful and probably perfect
  2. Ask if you can hug her…
  3. Offers for help are best when they are: short, specific, immediate…
  4. Do NOT get her a “topical” gift. Seriously, what can a person do with 12 “Beat Cancer” teddy bears or Livestrong bracelets?…
  5. She probably doesn’t care about your “expert research.” Unless you are her oncologist, therapist, or pastor, someone she professionally hires already has that covered…
  6. Respect her desire to share or withhold…
  7. Try not to make comparisons between what she is going through to something your cousin, your dog, or your favorite TV character experienced…
  8. She wants your presence more than an uplifting card…
  9. Avoid platitudes: …the worst things you can say to someone going through a tough time are phrases that minimize their suffering or tell them to grin and bear it…
  10. Words of comfort don’t have to be perfect!…