It seems that, as we age, we are called to deal with bad news more often than when we are younger. Maybe it is because all the people we love are also aging and experiencing more health problems. Maybe it is because the elders that often protected us and buffered us from the brunt of bad news are now gone.
Somewhere along the way, I have become the designated driver of bad news. I’m not sure how it happened or why, but I seem to be the person that gets the rotten task of telling someone that something bad has happened.
I first noticed it when my aunt died. My brother, who lived about five miles from my mother, called me to drive out and tell my mother the sad news that her sister had passed. I drove 150 miles roundtrip to be the bearer of bad news.
I had three employees die during my career and I was the one who got to share that news with the staff. I had to fire several people during my tenure in management, which was very difficult.
It isn’t that I’m especially good at breaking bad news. I never know what to say, no matter how hard I try to come up with the right words. I can’t say I have ever noticed that anyone’s grief was lessened because I was the one who told them. I think the only skill that I have learned to bring to these unpleasant conversations is that people get to feel however they feel. Perhaps, if there is a way to manage another person’s grief, that way is to NOT manage it. Maybe I’m a good person to break bad news because I understand that. I am willing to listen and sit silently in the wake of the other person’s grief, trying to absorb as much of it as I can.
I’m not sure when I started developing this skill, if it is indeed any skill. I’m not sure it is. I can’t explain it or tell you what steps it entails.
Maybe it was when my father died and I found myself comforted by selecting the music and readings for his funeral mass. I was going to read the responsorial psalm and I was nervous about it because I wasn’t sure I could get through it without crying. I found that, as I spoke the words of the psalm, my voice actually got stronger and my soul felt lighter. I am sure that was the intention of the psalmist. I volunteered to do these tasks because I saw it as the last service I could do for my father- to see that he was blessed on his way to Heaven and that the people he left behind were comforted.
Maybe it was when an employee died in a train accident, only a few years after surviving an earlier crash on the same train line. I did not think of the “right” things to do. Someone else had the presence of mind to call in the grief counselor and informed the union president, who called me to suggest truly sensible, practical things we might do to help the family. I was the one who made the grieving about my other employees- sitting with them, as a group and individually, and assuring them that their grief was important. I went to the funeral, even though the service was many miles away from my home. This happened soon after I took the position in this new office. Oddly, I noticed a shift in attitude towards me after these events. I could feel a subtle change towards their desire to let me lead them. I didn’t behave in any particular way during this time in order to curry favor with the employees, yet it happened.
Maybe it was even earlier. I remember, as a very small child, the day my maternal grandmother died. I was in first grade and, when I came home from school, my mother told me that Nana had gone to Heaven. She was crying and shaky and seemed almost like a stranger to me. I climbed into her lap and cried with her, as she rocked me in the rocking chair and held me. Yes, that is probably when I first learned to give bad news and try to bear some of the pain.
It is hard to be the town crier of catastrophe. It feels like desperation to me when I know I am going into a situation that will require me to tell another person something that will cause them great sadness. In a way, I think that feeling of desperation and confusion is almost the beginning of me trying to absorb some of the grief. It is either self-pity or empathy. I choose to believe it is empathy.
Despite the fact that being the bearer or bad tidings is such a difficult task and takes so much of my inner reserves, I am glad that I have been able to experience these situations. Being with people in these moments of grief has taught me a lot about how to live and how to die. While I pour out my emotional reserves, I often find I am repaid with a wide spectrum of wisdom after the experience. There is a richness in these experiences that I am privileged to share.
A cousin of mine had a massive stroke about a month before my mother suffered her stroke. He died eleven days later. He was my mother’s godson. In my extended family, there are many cousins. Since my family moved far away from most of the siblings and relations over fifty years ago, there are only a few with whom we have kept a continual bond and relationship over the years of separation. The cousin who just died was one of the few. He bought me my first typewriter for Christmas one year when I was a little girl. It was bright orange. He airmailed it to me, likely spending more money on the shipping than on the typewriter itself. He used to send me holiday greeting cards decorated with sheet music that I could actually play on my flute when I was in the school band in junior high. He took me gallivanting through Manhattan, even to see Broadway plays, when I made trips to New York as an adult.
His sister called me when it happened and asked me to tell my mother, of course. She called my mother a few times after the original news, giving updates while we were waiting for the tests to come back that would suggest a prognosis. She tried to make these updates sound cheery and hopeful, even though they really weren’t. The news finally came that the stroke was devastating and any rehabilitation was unlikely. The hospital was moving my cousin to Hospice where a breathing apparatus was going to be removed. The doctors did not expect my cousin to survive long after the transfer. Of course, at that point, my cousin called me, the harbinger of doom, to give my mother the bad news. A day or so later, when my cousin died, I was again called upon to tell my mother the sad ending to the story.
Telling an 85-year-old disabled woman who has always cried over even slightly sentimental events (like my first communion) that her godson was dying and, then, that he succumbed to his illness, was difficult. I could say I didn’t want to upset her, which is, of course, the truth. However, such a desire was completely unrealistic. Of course I was going to upset her. I just didn’t want her to be upset to the point of making herself ill and compromising her own life. I told her and she was upset, of course. But that is okay. She was allowed to be upset and, if she wanted to cry, she was allowed to cry. She kept apologizing and I kept assuring her that it was okay…. That she gets to feel however she feels. It soon became clear that, despite the tears, she was actually strong and wise and faithful enough to know that the best thing that could have happened for my cousin had happened. She found it sad and confounding that he should be gone and she should still continue in this life, but she knew that his life was often complicated and fraught with darkness. She also knew that, given the effects of the stroke, any life he had in this world would be painful and compromised.
I have learned that a death often brings a life into focus. When I was still working, I used to think that wasting time was a luxury that I could indulge once I retired. Being the harbinger of doom has taught me that wasting time is not a luxury. It is simply a waste. When I leave this life, I want the life I leave to be emanating light and love and courage. Until that day comes, I will not waste time. I will spend time. I will use time. I will invest time. I will percolate in time. I will do all these things with time in a different way and for different reasons than I did while I was working, but I will remember that time is precious. Using it wisely, whatever wisely means, is the most important thing we can do in our lives.
How do you relay bad news? Have you found that you have to do so now more than you did when you were younger? What have you learned from the experience? Please share your perspective by leaving a comment. In the alternative, you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Have a doom-free day!
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