Bad News by Barbara Nadel

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I’ve been working on a scene this week that revolves around one character being given some bad news by another. Not easy to write without falling into the land of cliché, they are also hard from an emotional intelligence point of view too. In my opinion and experience, this is because when you impart bad news to someone, you never know how they are going to react.

Speaking for myself, I know that I have often thought I would know how I was going to react in certain adverse situations. Before my father died I always thought that news of his death would render me a screaming wreck of incomprehension. As it happened my first response was one of total and complete numbness. I don’t remember feeling anything apart from a vague surprise that I was still breathing. My heart didn’t pump, I didn’t have to struggle for breath and there didn’t seem to be a thought in my head. Later on I cried and that was uncontrollable. But for some reason I still don’t understand I had to lock myself away in the bathroom and switch the shower on in order to do that. My family are not the sort of people who hide their emotions and so there was no real need to lock myself away. But I did it because I was in the unknown country of grief where I now know that anything is possible.

It is true that grief may be expressed in different ways across different cultures. But there’s no absolute rule about this. For instance, in the past I’ve come across some of my fellow Brits who believe that Turkish people always give vent to great displays of emotion when they are faced with tragedy. Sometimes this is true, but sometimes that follows for British people too. Also there is a Turkish version of our own, and famous, ‘stiff upper lip’. Turkey as well as being an ex-Imperial power is also a nation of soldiers. The military, not just since the advent of Atatürk, but right back into the mists of the Ottoman Empire have always been respected, revered and in many cases loved. Their reputation for discipline and national pride is legendary. The guards that stand utterly motionless and smart as whips outside the Dolmabahçe Palace winter and summer are fine examples of this. The expression of emotion is not frowned upon in Turkey but neither is stoicism either. In my time in the country I have seen funeral processions where everyone weeps uncontrollably and others where people just quietly bow their heads and remember the deceased in silence. There’s no template for any of this.

Not that such musings take me any closer to sorting out how one of my characters may respond when he is given bad news. In line with what I know about him, his life experience, his personality and his age it is possible that he may break down and sob. However what he is being told about is an incident that happened many years ago and is also something that he can now do nothing about. He may be rendered numb as I was when my father died but then again he may also be angry too because now it is to late to even try to put what happened so many years ago right.

Weird stuff can happen around bad news. I’ve known people blame completely innocent parties for deaths they could never have caused and divorces they had absolutely no part in. People fall out when bad news comes just as easily, seemingly, as misery can bring others together. Sometimes things so ‘left field’ can happen it can take your breath away. People can sometimes immediately enter a complete stare of denial upon being told bad news. They can just carry on with whatever they are doing and completely change the subject. Some may even keep that up for days or weeks, maybe even longer.

I always think that these scenes that cause us to reflect about what we do with and to our characters in this particular situation are very valuable. Flinging them into crisis can illuminate things about them that maybe we haven’t considered before. As I was surprised by what happened to me when I was in grief, so I am continually surprised by what my characters do when bad news comes as well.

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