Here There and Everywhere

Expat wanderer

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.

Bad news?

“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.

October 28, 2009 - Posted by | Biography, Building, Character, ExPat Life, Family Issues, Florida, Friends & Friendship, Halloween, Living Conditions, Relationships


  1. How about, “hey mom —oh by the way, I called the contractor; the roof is leaking— has it rained in Doha yet?” 😛

    Comment by 3baid | October 28, 2009 | Reply

  2. Dear intlxpatr- May not have been paying attention but so glad to hear about the baby coming! Grandma!!!! Post pictures of the wonderful things, I am assuming, that you are making for the baby!

    BTW, I am the same way. At a previous church I was pegged to call around with bad news because I can do it so cheerfully! I don’t know if that is a good thing.

    Comment by Q8Dutchie | October 28, 2009 | Reply

  3. LLOOLLL, 3baid, you nailed it!

    Q8Dutchie, yes! Grandma! Grandpa! We can hardly wait! We loved watching you and your sweet family, and yearned for the like . . . We can barely contain ourselves. 🙂

    Comment by intlxpatr | October 28, 2009 | Reply

  4. The nice thing about you (Grandma and Grandpa) is that you can give the baby back to the parents!

    Comment by Q8Dutchie | October 29, 2009 | Reply

  5. LOL, Q8Dutchie, I have a secret weapon – my husband is wonderful with babies!

    Comment by intlxpatr | October 29, 2009 | Reply

  6. Thank God that story turned out the way it did. It kinda ticks me off when someone delivers news in that manner to me.

    You know what else is irksome? When someone says I’ve got good news or great news and it turns out to be something so negligible and who-cares’ish. Just say what is from the get go, why raise my expectations like that!

    Comment by 1001Nights | October 29, 2009 | Reply

  7. LLOOLL! 1001, you remember my son is a lawyer, right? It isn’t just a profession, it is a way of thinking. He tells you what he is going to tell you (I’ve got some bad news,) he carefully lays out all the evidence, so you can follow, and he presents a conclusion (so I am about to call the repairman, but thought you would want to know first.)

    Some people don’t want the news straight up – when our son was young, my husband would come home and I would quickly greet him with “He’s OK, it’s not as bad as it looks.” He doesn’t want to be hit hard with the news, he wants it delivered more deliberately. I always needed to warn him gently.

    But when it comes to bad news, give me the subject right straight up!

    Your irksome good news made me grin, it’s like a local big shopping mall starting to charge for parking “for our customer’s convenience.”

    Comment by intlxpatr | October 29, 2009 | Reply

  8. You mean when your son was sick?

    And I didn’t mean that kind of ironic who-the-hell-are-you-kidding good news 🙂

    Comment by 1001 Nights | October 30, 2009 | Reply

  9. Just you wait! Little boys can get into so much trouble! Once he tripped and had eight stitches to sew up his forehead. One he broke his arm. Little boys! They are so much fun and so unpredictable! Thanks be to God, they also heal rapidly.

    Comment by intlxpatr | October 30, 2009 | Reply

  10. Intlxpatr ;

    Am you may know that SMS messages are used here in our area to pass bad news too.

    So thing to watch out for when you send the SMS is how to start the message itself ,since you can read some words of the begining of the message before you fully open the message itself .

    If the message was not wrirtten with some considerate thinking it may actually scare the heck out of the receiver before he/she can open the message and read it completely .

    Comment by daggero | October 30, 2009 | Reply

  11. Daggero, you make a very good point. There is some news that should never be delivered by SMS or even e-mail. There is some news that shouldn’t be delivered by telephone unless there is no other way (like your family is 10 time zones away.) Even if you do everything right, some things it just isn’t right to do by SMS – break-ups, firing, etc.

    Comment by intlxpatr | October 31, 2009 | Reply

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