Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Breaking the News

I find I’m still reflecting on my experiences from Widow Camp. In those few short days I feel like I moved forward leaps and bounds down the healing path simply by being surrounded by others who share similar past experiences. The friendships I made there still stand and the conversations haven’t stopped. The reward has been well beyond the investment.

One theme that has popped up in the discussions I’ve had with my new widow/er friends was the breaking of the news of Maggie’s death which reminded me how difficult it was to do. No matter the social context, it’s a challenge. About three months after Maggie’s Angel Day, I wrote the following post about a surprise phone call and how I dealt with breaking the news.

From August 2009:

8:30 AM
Phone: Ring, Ring!!
Me: “Hello?”
Voice: “Hi, is Maggie around?”

Oh, I’m wide awake now!

Me: “Uhm, can I ask who’s calling, please?”
Voice: “This is Jim.* I’m an old friend of Maggie’s and wanted to say hi. This is Chris, right?”
Me: “Hi, Jim. Uhm… Jim, I guess it’s been a while since you’ve talked to her. I’m sorry to say but…..”

* Jim is not his name. I’ve changed it because, well, I don’t know why but it seems like a good idea.

I’ve developed three modes of relaying that particular news. Mode I is pretty callous and nearly an attack. I’ve used it with bill collectors, mostly. I call it the I-Hate-You-And-Want-To-Hurt-You mode. Funny thing, though, if I’m throwing death-news daggers, it probably is at someone who will never be bothered by my pain. I might as well be throwing cotton balls at them.

Mode II is less of an affront and more just getting the information out. I use it with those who need to know but don’t know her, like, the Department of Transportation, AT&T, or Wells Fargo. Mode II is my default delivery method mainly for my own protection. It’s easiest and requires the least emotional commitment from me. Selfish, direct and over quickly.

Mode III is the most difficult. I only use this method when I really, really have to because the person I’m telling knew Maggie or me (or both!) well and I consider them worth special effort. I’d rather eat scalding hot pizza than use this method. Mode III almost always makes me and the other person cry.

For Jim, I used Mode II. I should have used Mode III but I just didn’t have it in me. I’m sorry, Jim. I hope the rest of your morning went a little better.


  1. I still haven't had to do this much yet.
    But when I have, I've used only Mode I. It's all I've had the energy for. It causes most people to FLEE. Which can be good in certain situations.

  2. It gets even worse when after two years, I am blindsided by someone who does not know. Because they didn't know us very well but know our name (my husband was a physican in this small county for many years). Someone will recogize my name and say "Hi, aren't you Dr. Smith's wife?" I tend to automatically say "yes." While my brain spins in a nanosecond.."wife, widow, what do I say?" Then I get blindsided by "Oh, how's he doing?" Somewhere from deep in my brain comes an autoresponse..."I'm so sorry if you haven't heard but Dr. Smith passed away." This is followed by an awkward moment of silence where the questioner puts a very strange look on their face while I stare at them. Then they say.."oh,oh, I didn't know, when did it happen?" To which I reply "two years ago." Then the awkward look again, then the "I"m so sorrys"......then I thank them profusely for their condolence and get the hell out of there. Wishing I could just show up somewhere and feel normal again.

  3. Chris, I applaud your efforts to "break the news in modes." I generally after four months now try for #3 mode which usually breaks down to the tears mode after the hug and sympathy comes. At all costs I avoid shopping, going to church etc. in my small community. I opt to drive 30 miles to the next town because from past experience the day is shot for me emotionally after having to tell anyone about my dearest again. True avoidance!

  4. I thought after the first year those awkward moments would be long gone, but they weren't. I'll admit, I've even caught myself lying about his death a time or two, if the person I'm speaking with is a person I will never see again anyway. Sometimes it's just easier.

  5. To anon above..avoidance is a very good thing. Learning to protect yourself at this very vulnerable time is so important. Of course it ruins your day, or days, after an emotional barrage. This was a lesson I had to learn with the help of my grief therapist, because I was used to being all things to all people all of the time. UGH. Thank God she led me to the light on this one...kept driving it home to me that I did not have anything left to give. I get it now. Good for you.

  6. I admire your grace. I haven't had those type of conversations yet but it has been less than 3 months. I was dreading explaining the situation to new hires after one commented on the wedding pictures on my desk. Thankfully, the other team members explained the situation later. I'm not ready to handle that situation.

    I like the idea of having different modes. Sometimes you have to handle things a certain way to get through the moment.