“Never awake me when you have good news to announce, because with good news nothing presses; but when you have bad news, arouse me immediately, for then there is not an instant to be lost.” Napoleon Bonaparte
Reflections: Why People Shy Away From Bad News… Or How We Handle Other People’s Grief.
Years ago, I had a friend who was always eager to share the events of her life; good and bad. While, in our circle of friends, we understood that life throws us all many curve balls, good and bad, she didn’t quite grasp the concept. You see, she had no qualms sharing her Debbie downer stories but she took umbrage anytime anyone else shared a sad or distressing story… “Please enough with the negativity… I don’t want to be tainted by bad news stories… Go tell someone else!” Tainted? She believed, like some others do too, that being around bad news or even around anyone who has experienced it would somehow transfer the experience to her. Of course, common sense makes it highly unlikely that my bad news will become your bad experience… but some people believe this.
“Nobody likes the bringer of bad news” Sophocles
When a good friend of mine lost a child some years back, there were friends who simply walked away and stopped talking to her. I found the behavior both strange and painful. Why would anyone choose a dark period in a friend’s life to disappear? As someone explained it to me, “Perhaps they didn’t know how to comfort her or it brought back sad memories of their own…” Perhaps. But wouldn’t a simple expression of condolence, “my sympathies to you and yours” suffice, even if we can’t find the emotional strength or words to share? We all experience loss during our lifetime; eventually culminating in our own demise and so to shy away from the subject or from those who are hurting makes no sense at all. I can understand the sense of overwhelm, but walking away is unconscionable… with no apologies given.
“Bad news isn’t wine. It doesn’t improve with age.” Colin Powell
What other factors contribute to this behavior? I haven’t seen specific research on shying away but I’ve read plenty on handling grief/coping with grief and what stood out is that people do respond to grief in different ways; we have coping mechanisms that we use to handle bad news. These coping mechanisms cover the emotional spectrum from numbness, anger, bitterness, deep sadness, gratitude, and feigned indifference, to an eagerness to get back to normalcy. In a Washington Post article, Christopher Davis, a professor of psychology, shared how he conducted a research study in which he and colleagues interviewed the 52 surviving family members, including 11 widows of 26 coal miners who died in a terrible accident. They found three coping methods in the group: Mullers (looked for positive lessons from their loss), Chronic grievers (rehashed events and stories) and Copers (believed that bad stuff happens and get over it). Assuming we fall in one of these three categories, our reaction to other people’s loss might trigger a specific response or, in some cases, none at all. Those who shy away might fall in the Copers group, and, if an event doesn’t affect them directly, adopt a stance that says “Hey, stuff happens! No comment.” The other extreme is what we see on the internet when trolls, hiding behind anonymous handles, write nasty things about a tragic loss.
“He who laughs has not yet heard the bad news.” Bertolt Brecht
In Bill Urell’s 10 Ways to Handle Grief , one of his suggested tips is to Blog about your experiences or write a diary. Writing about a painful episode can be cathartic for both the writer and those who knew the deceased up close. Honoring the deceased and sharing facets of their life can help with the healing process. Since we live in a world that is increasingly internet driven and public, we can no longer avoid public expressions of grief; especially if the loved died tragically in a public event. Now, in conversations I have had, some people feel that airing such news is in bad form; grieving should be private… Perhaps. I think that position is more to allay their discomfort with the whole thing. Furthermore, it is not scientifically proven that grieving privately makes us feel any better any sooner, so I beg to differ. I am more inclined to say grieve as you honestly feel and move forward only when you’re ready… which most of us eventually do; not when others expect/advice/think you should. Could there be a cultural component to this subject? More below!