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Many Losses, Many Beliefs, Many Misunderstandings

By Heather Millar

Woman Comforting Friend

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how cancer is so often about loss, just as life is so often about loss. That’s a Buddhist idea. I’m Episcopalian.

I’ve also been pondering this puzzle: How do we comfort each other when we face these losses with such different beliefs?

An old family friend of ours has lung cancer. He’s just learned that his cancer has spread and that the chemo isn’t working. He’s a Unitarian. His sisters live in the Deep South and follow more evangelical forms of Christianity. His sisters are full of certainty; he’s full of questions.

When I was just diagnosed with breast cancer, my deeply Catholic father-in-law asked me how I was feeling. I told him perhaps more than he really was equipped to know. He blustered something about giving up his problems to his “good friend Jesus.” I know he meant well, but that’s no exactly how I approach religion. Both of us ended up feeling uncomfortable.

I have an acquaintance who just lost a child to cancer. She’s an atheist. I can’t even imagine her pain. Yet she has to cope with misunderstandings as well. Religious friends keep assuring her that her child is in heaven. She knows they’re trying to help, but they end up upsetting her even more.

We Americans are a deeply faithful nation, just not the same faiths. In my daughter’s small elementary class, there are Christians of all stripes, atheists, Jews, pagans, and a Muslim boy. And that’s just a sample of 28 kids!

So how do we reach across these divides when we’re hurting?

After a lot of thought, I’ve hit on one, simple sentence to use during times of loss, “You and your family are in my thoughts and prayers.”

I don’t go into details. I don’t get into questions of heaven or no heaven, personal God or no personal God, of Jehovah and Jesus and Mohammed and Buddha and Shiva and the Mormons’ Joseph Smith.

Some religions encourage their adherents to go out and spread the news. That’s fine. But when people are dealing with profound loss, my feeling is that we need to meet them where they are, whether that’s a place with no religion, or a place of devout faith.

What are we doing when we reach out to someone who’s coping with the losses that cancer metes out? We’re letting them know that we’re here, that we care, that we want to help. Those sentiments cut across belief systems.

We can leave the details for another day.

What do you think? How do you comfort friends and family whose beliefs are different from your own?

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