Where to Start a Difficult Conversation?
“Mom,” my son started out, “I have some bad news.”
My heart sank. They are expecting a baby in late January. Please Lord, let this baby be OK.
He starts into a long story, which has to do with an old friend who lost a job, who is staying with them temporarily, who has been very helpful, and on and on and on; I live in a family where nuances are important, and details help understand the conclusions, but it is hard to hold your breath that long!
Then he gets to the point. While he and his wife were at work, the friend was in the house recovering from jet-lag and it started raining hard. His friend thought he heard drips in the attic, and upon exploration, they discovered a small leak in the roof. He will call the contractor we work with, but he wanted me to know.
“Son!” I said, laughing, “when you start a sentence with ‘I have bad news,’ it needs to be followed immediately with ‘I am OK, my wife is OK and the baby is OK’ so I don’t have a heart attack!”
We both laughed. He said “yeh, I thought about that about halfway through the explanation, but I didn’t want to break the train of thought.”
When you have bad news, get it out on the table. Start with “I have bad news, (fill in the blank.)” Then go into the background, and the proposed solutions. My son did everything right, except for the part about I was scared for him and his wife and the baby.
On the other hand, after all that build-up, I was so happy that it seemed like such a small problem, compared to the possibilities.
My husband tells a joke, the point of which is to build up gently to bad news. Not to start with “the cat is dead” but to start with “the cat was on the roof . . . ” The day came when I had to call him with some very bad news, and because I am wired to laugh in the face of the worst things that can happen (it is a sort of hysterical reaction, I have to work hard to control myself at funerals and weddings, I cry at weddings and want to laugh at funerals. The big things are just too overwhelming for me so I react inappropriately. Our family joke is that “inappropriate” is the grown-up word for “stupid”) I had a very hard time not starting off with “the cat was on the roof,” which would have been totally inappropriate but I was overwhelmed, knew I needed to let him know immediately, and you think when you get to be a grown-up you will have all the answers, but we don’t. We really don’t. Like you, we do the best we can.
What I really like was that when our son gave us the bad news, he also had a proposal for how to handle it. Wooo HOOO.
Then he told us they are planning their Halloween costumes. First, because his wife is now very visibly pregnant, they were looking for a cheap doll to take apart and glue some appendages coming out of her little basketball-tummy, but now they are looking for tentacles, a la “Alien”. LLLLOOOOLLLLL! I thought it would be the perfect occasion to wear her wedding dress, our son could wear a tuxedo and the friend could go as the angry-Papa, carrying a shotgun. Yes, we are a little weird in our family, but we have a great time.