05.26.19

How do you share your bad news?

Posted in Uncategorized at 9:41 pm by ducky

My mother died. It wasn’t a big surprise — she had had cancer for three years, and was not having a good time.

I am discovering that I am human: I burst into tears somewhat unpredictably, I find myself regularly thinking, “Oh, I should tell Mom about… oh wait, no I can’t.” I had heard people talk about those effects, so I know those would happen.

But nobody told me how to break the news. If there is a convention in our culture for how to break the news, well, I must have been sick the day we covered that material.

It was straightforward to notify her friends. I phoned them and told them. It was right and appropriate and the mere fact that I phoned them was an indication that something was wrong. It was sometimes hard for me to get the words out, but her friends understood, in part because they also were grieving.

Telling strangers was slightly harder than telling her friends. Sometimes I had to tell a company, e.g. ones Mom was a customer of. If the company was big enough that they had a branch dedicated to closing accounts for deceased people, it wasn’t so bad, but for smaller companies, sometimes the person on the other end would not be emotionally prepared, and it would remind them of some loss of theirs and set them off, which would set me off.

(There was exactly one company, her newspaper, which was insensitive. The agent kept very aggressively trying to get me to take over her subscription even though I don’t live in Mom’s town.)

But nobody prepared me for the angst of how to tell my friends and acquaintances, especially those who lived in other cities. Send them an email with the subject line, “Mom died”? Send a chatty email about the weather and say, “oh, by the way, Mom died yesterday”? Or do I wait and say, “oh, by the way, Mom died last month”? Or should I wait until I see them in person, which might be a year or two from now? Or do I just not tell them — ever?

For people I run into who I know and like but am not super close to, a simple “How’s it going?” makes my brain freeze for a minute. Do I just give the pro forma “fine?”. Do I blurt out “my mom died”? Do I wait for an appropriate place in the conversation? Is there an appropriate place? Am I going to burst into tears or am I going to be able to maintain composure?

I thus have been completely bumbling along and inconsistent. Some people I have told unbidden. Some people I’ve told when asked how I was. Some people I just… haven’t told… yet. I tell myself I’m doing the best I can, but I know I am lying to myself. I don’t even have the foggiest idea what “best” looks like.

So I’m blogging this. Perhaps this will catch some of the people I haven’t told yet.

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