How do I deal with bad news?

Expecto Patronum!

Apologies for the late send this morning—had a dog emergency that ate up 5 am til about now. All is seemingly good now, but that’s why Gridology is in your inbox later than normal. Thank you for your patience.


This year will go down as the worst year in a long, long time. It’s been one filled with loss, hardship, and pain. On top of the nearly 200k lives lost from COVID-19, we’ve also lost so many inspirational societal changemakers. Every time another one passes away it sucks the hope out of the room. Kobe Bryant. John Lewis. Regis Philbin. Chadwick Boseman. And now, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg.

With so much bad news to bear this year, it’s essential we talk about it and—more importantly—figure out ways to move past it.

Let’s get to it:


My fiancé and I started rewatching the Harry Potter movies this week. They’re a great (and much needed) escape. Entering the wizarding world, watching some quidditch, and seeing the good guys win is a real mood booster. That said, the series gets dark and has me flashing back to tough moments this year. This scene from the third movie, especially:

Every time Twitter or a push notification delivers yet another piece of bad news, it feels like an encounter with a dementor. The room grows cold. Light becomes darkness. My mood sours. My energy dips. To fight a dementor requires the Patronus Charm—a defensive spell that produces a bright guardian angel. Successfully conjuring the charm requires “happiness and hope.”

In the wizarding world, using the Patronus to fight dementors is a sign of elite ability and strength. It’s actually the same in the muggle world too. The better you can recover from bad news, the stronger you become.

I’ve previously written about how I overcome adversity, but dealing with bad news is a bit different. Adversity is a personal struggle. Bad news can happen at a macro (city, state, country, global) level. More specifically, adversity often is just a personal type of bad news.

Dealing with bad news requires your own type of Patronus Charm—a way to confront misfortune with happiness and hope. Today, I’ll break down how you can cast your own Patronus Charm to defend against bad news.

On the x-axis, we have your response to receiving bad news. When you’re hit with something terrible, there are usually two ways to handle it: you can ignore it or you can confront it.

There is an analogy my therapist tells me to consider when dealing with bad news: Imagine you’re a cow grazing in a large pasture. In the distance, you see a horrible thunderstorm coming. You’re left with two choices:

  1. Run away from the thunderstorm.

  2. Run towards the thunderstorm.

Often, we (myself especially) may find ourselves taking option one. When bad things happen, we want to avoid thinking about them and enduring the pain they cause. Instead, we let the bad news loom—allowing it to permeate our brains with stress, frustration, and apprehension without ever dealing with the issue. Eventually, however, the storm catches up to us, and when it does it actually takes longer to pass.

The better response is to run towards the thunderstorm. When you run through it, you can get through the pain faster, get to the other side, and start grazing again. This requires mental fortitude, though. You need to want to embrace hardship.

On the y-axis, we have how you tap into support resources. When you try to handle bad news alone, it is significantly harder than when you tap into resources, talk to your friends and family, and engage with commentary on the matter. We don’t have all of the answers. Engaging with content and people who can help makes bad news easier to digest. That said, there are times when dealing with bad news by yourself can be a fruitful and meaningful experience.

Understanding the Grid

To deal with bad news, I recommend landing in the top right quadrant. Landing here allows you to handle bad news more effectively and efficiently than you would otherwise. You confront the issue head-on while also tapping into an important web of resources. Landing in other quadrants, from experience, just makes the process of dealing with bad news tougher than it needs to be. While it is still possible to deal with bad news from other quadrants, the result is more challenging and often more grueling.

Recover

You confront bad news and you engage with support resources. I landed here when Kobe Bryant died suddenly earlier this year (which also happened to be my birthday). Kobe was an icon and inspiration. Watching someone who appeared larger than life die so tragically was tough to process. To work through the pain, I confronted it directly. I shared what his life meant to me with friends and in therapy. I wrote down valuable traits from his life I wanted to incorporate into my own. I spent a week or so processing the news and letting it consume me. I ran into the thunderstorm and felt freer on the other side. When I think of Kobe now, I think of all the aspects of his life worth emulating and less about the tragedy of his untimely death. Recovery from bad news is not easy. What makes this quadrant so essential are the long-term benefits that only healthy closure can provide. The hard work is complete. Emotions shouldn’t sneak up on you in the future.

Struggle

You confront bad news but you don’t engage with support resources. Sometimes bad news needs to be handled alone. This is commonly found when you see people writing, journaling, meditating, or exercising when misfortune strikes. For example, you could create a “bad news response habit”—a process designed to help you overcome frustration, grief, and anxiety. For example, when Chadwick Boseman died, I wrote this Gridology post. It helped me organize my thoughts, transfering them from my brain to a physical space. It allowed me to stop thinking about the news and process what had happened. I did the writing all by myself and often struggled through it—taking at least two breaks to let out the raw emotion of what I was feeling.

Sometimes, though, you don’t engage with resources, not by design but because you don’t know where to turn. In these cases, try opening up to a friend or family member. Ask for help. Here’s the worst that can happen: that person can’t help you but offers other resources that could help.

Stress

You ignore dealing with bad news but you engage with support resources. This is the most dangerous quadrant to land. Here you ignore the issue, but still are engaging with resources that you think can help. Another name for this quadrant could be mainstream news syndrome. When bad news happens—especially at the national or global level—you turn on the news and forget to turn it off. You get lost in a cacophony of hot takes, dire warnings, and alarmist undertones. What’s disguised as informing yourself to make you feel better actually makes you feel worse. Although you are engaging with lots of resources to process the news, you haven’t taken the time to confront the issue for yourself. Rather than mindlessly tuning in to cable news this weekend to process the passing of RBG, can you perhaps pause and think about why you’re upset, what actions you will take to process, and how you recover. In this quadrant, you conflate engaging with the issues as dealing with them. They are starkly different.

Deflect

You ignore dealing with bad news and you don’t engage with support resources. This quadrant is the “pretend it never happened” strategy in action. You take option one in the cow analogy above. When you deflect dealing with bad news, you extend the amount of time the news can have control over your mind. Unprocessed bad news accumulates. My dad always says the only thing you can count on with bad news is that it’s not the last piece you’ll ever hear. So, deflecting it only adds to your hardship. It allows anxiety to brew. While the short-term gains are extraordinary (out of sight, out of mind), the long-term implications are devastating. If you have a leak in your house, the last thing you’d want to do is put duct tape over it. With that strategy, you are almost ensuring a bigger and more dangerous problem for yourself down the road.

Grid Shortcomings

  1. This grid ignores time. Some bad news takes a long time to move beyond. It hits home in a way that really lingers, no matter how much you try to confront the issue and use resources that help. Sometimes, even when you move past an issue, it can rear its head months or years later. Just because you are dealing with bad news in the right manner, that doesn’t mean the process is quick.

I hope this framework helps you triage whatever the rest of 2020 (and beyond) brings. While I’m not perfect in always responding to bad news in the ways I prefer, I do strive to confront things that bother me directly rather than letting them fester. Plus, the more that I can ask for help when I need it helps ensure I can begin the healing process sooner rather than later.

Life’s only as confusing as you let it be,
Ross


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