“When someone is crying, of course, the noble thing to do is to comfort them. But if someone is trying to hide their tears, it may also be noble to pretend you do not notice them.”
I look at my phone when we pull into port. Three missed calls. Two texts. All from coworkers.
I sigh. What are they doing? They know I’m on vacation.
At sea for a week, sailing up the Alaskan coast. I’d warned the office that I likely wouldn’t have reception for most of the trip. And the rest of the time, I’d be too busy enjoying myself to put out any fires.
I slide my phone back into my purse and try to put it out of my mind for the rest of the trip. This is my time. It can wait.
When I step off the red eye out of Alaska, there are voicemails. Twelve hours left until I’m due to report back. My boss’s voice. “Call the office when you get a chance.”
But it’s after hours. I’m exhausted and need sleep.
I arrive at 7 am sharp, not sure what will be waiting for me.
Has there been some kind of work emergency? I open up my email, and it becomes evident.
No, nothing like that. One of my coworkers had a death in the family. Went on bereavement leave. Unfortunate circumstances. I shake my head, sorry for her. And pivot to catching up the status of work projects that are underway. Making sure they’ve been tended to in my absence. Jumping into email threads and officially taking them back over.
When my boss rolls up around 9:30, she stands in my doorframe, anxious.
“I’ve caught up on emails,” I say. “Was that what you called me about?”
She nods. “I didn’t want you to find out the news that way,” she says.
“That way?” I say.
“By email. I thought it’d be best to tell you in person. Or at least over the phone.”
Getting Bad News in Person Has Always Been Harder
It’s a sentiment I’ve heard many times. Bad news is best delivered in person. But I’ve never found that to be the case.
The last few people close to me who passed away (my aunt and before that a friend), I found out via text. One from a Facebook post where someone announced that she’d passed, the other via a text from my sister.
And the medium didn’t change the reality. They were gone.
If anything, finding out the news over text meant that I had more privacy. I didn’t have to worry about falling apart in front of the news giver. Crying. Or worse, not showing enough emotion secondary to shock.
Don’t get me wrong. I’d rather not get bad news at all.
But I’ve found that getting it in person? Is way harder. There’s a lack of privacy. And the pressure to respond.
The difficult part of this is that everyone tends to default to wanting to deliver tough news in person. Whether it’s something large like someone passing away. Or something much smaller. It’s considered best practice to do it in person.
“I don’t know what his problem is. If you’re gonna break news like that, you should do it in person,” I hear a friend remark, after receiving a difficult text.
I sit there, feeling like I’m in the wrong world.
My Grief and Despair Don’t Like an Audience
He breaks difficult news to me as we sit in a restaurant.
“Okay,” I say. “It’s fine.”
“Your poker face isn’t as good as you think it is,” he says. He adds that he waited to tell me so he could do it in person.
I sigh. Tell him everything I wrote above, leaning forward. I’m hiding behind my soda. My face wants to screw up, but I won’t let it. I’m struggling to stay in charge of it.
“It just feels… wrong… to tell you over text,” he says.
“Why is that?” I ask.
“I want to be accountable,” he says.
“For the feelings I cause,” he says. “If I hurt you, I want to know, so I can do something about it.”
“Is that what bothers you about delivering bad news over text?”
He nods. “With text, it’s like I just put it out there and run away, and then you have to deal with it. That hardly seems fair.”
I study his face. He’s earnest. There’s a softness. I stir my soda with the straw, staring into the ice.
“Well,” I say finally. “Maybe I don’t want you, or anyone else, to see me fall apart.”
My grief and despair don’t like an audience.