Monday, October 14, 2013

Bad News Travels Awkwardly

Nursing is considered a helping profession. Nurses are compassionate, and empathetic, and helpful.  They are trained to be sensitive to the feelings of others. My father and mother trained to be nurses; they met at nursing school. After graduation, my mom became a mom, but my dad continued working in the nursing field.  He is considered to be very helpful by everyone who knows him.

Both sides of my family also have a long history of nuns.  Nuns are helpful sorts, and we have nuns out the wazoo in my family. They're almost genetic.  Being a nun is all about service to others. Nuns are pretty empathetic, unless they are working at a grade school. With that sort of background, and that sort of career choice, you'd think that my parents would be good at delivering bad news.

You would be wrong.

Neither of my parents are good at delivering bad news.  My mom tends to minimize, if she mentions it at all.  It's been difficult for me to keep track of family members over the years; my mom either never tells me when aunts, uncles, etc., have passed away, or she mentions it in passing. Most of the time, if I mention a relative's name in passing, my mother looks at me like I am insane.  

"Aunt Dorothy died six months ago!"

"What?!! When?!! How?!!" 

"I just don't know why you can't keep track of these things."

To be fair, I gave my mom lots of fits growing up.  I got a double dose of the empathy gene, so I'm a crier.  Any bad news would have had me bawling for hours.  To my reserved and stoic mother, I must have been a complete mystery. By waiting to tell me bad news, she avoided the inevitable waterworks.  I was too confused to cry by that point.

My father, on the other hand, is all about ripping that band-aid off quickly.  He usually waits until I am doing something else, like eating or working on a crochet project. That's when I am a little distracted. He tends to make small talk before he drops his news like a brick of lead. 

"Oh, by the way--your dog has heartworms and the treatment will probably kill her. Gotta go. Bye!"

Then he leaves the room while I sit there, my spoonful of cereal/soup halfway to my mouth, my eyes filling with tears.  Phone calls are no different--everything seems completely mundane, and then the hammer: "...your dog died last night.  Call you next week.  Bye!" 

I've learned to adjust to these surprises as a matter of survival, and face these sudden news flashes with a little more dignity than when I was a kid.  I have even tried to find a bit more empathy for the two of them in my middle ages; they did their best, whether it was good or bad.  Everyone feels uncomfortable sharing bad news, no matter who they are or what they do. 

But it's not the news delivery--it's what a person does after that that counts.


  1. The filters can be fairly amusing. ;)

  2. Always interesting to see the inner-workings of other families. My parents were stoic, as well, and avoided giving bad news to us kids. As a result, I felt in the dark a lot, like you did.

  3. Exactly. It's what you do post delivery. My mom isn't just bad at delivering bad news, she sort of relishes it. Today she called and the minute I heard her voice I knew. Yup. Somebody died. And she took her sweet time working up to it. Then she moved on to a nice Alzheimer's story just to round things out.

  4. I'm a crier too! It is what you do post-delivery. You have to be there. As a side note, my mother can be smothering although sweet. Sometimes, often, that drives me crazy too.

  5. I'm terrible at delivering bad news-I tend to cry and become incoherent. Then I need to be comforted. Not very helpful for the person who is receiving the news, unless my master plan is to distract them from their own feelings.
    I don't have a master plan.


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