Learning to Cope With Bad News
How to soften life’s blows and stay on track
Life is like a rollercoaster. There are many ups, downs and sharp bends. At every corner lies something new and unexpected, and it’s up to us to roll with the punches.
Like yours, my life has been a rollercoaster too. Last year my fianceé of six years was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, completely out of nowhere. One minute she was a university student enjoying nights out with her friends, the next she was bed-bound in hospital awaiting cranial surgery.
Bad news is no stranger to any of us. Whether it’s a failed job application, car accident or cancer diagnosis, we’ve all been hit with a few curveballs in our lifetime.
And yet, against all odds, we find ways in which to cope. We stand back on our feet and meet each new day with a brave face, determined to keep moving forward.
Sometimes, however, the weight becomes too heavy. The pain becomes too much. I’ve had many moments like that during the past year. Here’s how I’ve learned to cope.
You Can’t Fight Your Emotions
When negative feelings arise, fighting them often seems like the right thing to do. By combatting them and trying to expel them, we might expect that we can be free from their vices and regain balance.
If there’s anything I’ve learned over the course of the past year, it’s that you can’t fight your emotions. You can try, but you’ll almost definitely lose.
When we try to wrestle with our feelings and push them out of our mind, we only really make things worse. We just create even more tension for ourselves and wind up feeling bad and underwhelmed at our failed attempts to resolve our emotional turmoil.
I spent the first six months of Charlotte’s diagnosis trying to prevent myself from feeling sad. I’d distract myself all the time, never allowing a moment during which I could just feel.
I kept on like that for a while until one day the father of one of my closest friends sat me down and said,
‘Adrian, if there’s any advice I could give you during this terrible time, it would be to feel. Let yourself be down. Take a day off. Cry. Let things slide. Just take the time that you need to adjust to the new situation.’
That hit me like a tonne of bricks. I went home that night and sat in my bedroom without my phone, laptop or books and allowed myself to just feel — like he said.
Every day since, every time those negative emotions have risen up again, I’ve just let them do their thing. I know that they won’t last forever, and to resist them is futile, so I let them out and watch as they run their natural course.
One of the most important steps you can take when it comes to coping with bad news is opening yourself up to feel. To stop fighting.
Allow yourself time to adjust to the changes that have taken place. If you feel like crying, cry. If you want to take a few days off and curl up into a ball, do that. Do whatever you need to do, but just know this. Pain doesn’t last.
As Matt Haig wrote,
‘Minds have their own weather systems. You are in a hurricane. Hurricanes run out of energy eventually. Hold on.’
One Day at a Time
When we’re hit with a piece of bad news, usually our mind starts projecting itself. It starts conjuring up visions of a dismal future or revisiting the dark days of our past.
For months after Charlotte’s diagnosis, all I could think about was her future. Will her surgeons be able to operate? Will she respond to chemotherapy? Will she make it to the end of this year? How will I cope if she doesn’t?
A thousand different thoughts flooded my awareness on a daily basis. My mind was taken over by visions of the future and worry for what events might lie ahead.
But the thing is, the future never really pans out how we expect it to be. Even if the worst case scenario does materialize, we don’t know how that will pan out. We aren’t aware of the details. And most importantly, we can’t accurately envisage how we’re going to feel.
I know Charlotte’s days might be numbered. I know we might have a difficult future ahead of us — but everything is always worse when we imagine it and catastrophize. It’s always worse in our heads.
If and when the time comes, if what we fear does indeed come to fruition, we’ll find the strength to cope. Even if we can’t imagine that now.
But until that day, all we can really do is focus on this moment. When presented with bad news, we have to remember to take our days one step at a time. In the words of Mother Theresa, we have to
“Be happy in the moment, that’s enough. Each moment is all we need, not more.”
We can’t think too deeply about what might happen to us in the future. That’ll only make us anxious and, in turn, miserable.
Instead, we have to learn to root our focus and awareness in the now. We have to live for today and allow the future to unfold as it pleases. If we don’t, we’re just going to make things far more difficult for ourselves.
In times during which we might lose the things we most about, it can help to cultivate gratitude for that which we do have. Cliche, I know. And that’s because it works.
I recently read a book called ‘Zen: the Art of Simple Living’ by Japanese author Shunmyō Masuno. In it, he explains how many typical Japanese phrases relate closely to the concept of gratitude.
For example, ‘good morning’ in Japanese is ohaya gozaimasu, which translates to ‘it’s early’. Implicitly, it means ‘it is early in the day, and having made it safely made it thus far, let’s continue to strive for the best.’
Another common Japanese phrase is itadakimasu, which is said before eating food. It’s an expression of gratitude towards the food and the people who made it for us.
Isn’t that wonderful? That gratitude is such a fundamental aspect of Japanese culture?
Western culture, on the other hand, is all about wanting more. Advertisements, expensive brands and trends induce a deep craving within us to attain that which we don’t yet have access to. Greed.
During times of turmoil, it can help tremendously to focus on what we have already — to count our blessings. That’s what gratitude is.
We have eyes with which to see. A functional brain with which to read. The liberty to access the internet and all of the information that it contains. Family. Friends. Health.
No matter what happens to us, we’ll always have something for which we can feel grateful for. So take a moment to count your blessings.
I’m sure you’ll find that you have far more than to be thankful for you might have thought, and in the presence of those blessings, the impact of bad news is softened enormously.
At some point in our lives, we’re all going to experience difficult times and be faced with situations that we don’t want to bear. The good news is that, no matter what happens to us, we can always find ways to cope.
By making room for our emotions, cultivating gratitude for what we have and taking life one step at a time, we can all find within us the strength to adjust new situations. Even during the darkest times, we can discover light. We just have to know where to look.
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