What James Can Teach Us About Responding To A Friend’s Bad News

Advice for Grandparents Advice for Parents Blog Post Dr Emily McClatchey Kidolences Blog Kidolences Origin Professional Help


A few months ago, I walked out of a meeting with my oncologist about my cancer diagnosis and prognosis (spoiler: the odds are on my side), and into my husband’s lunch date with his friend James. I was crashing their man-outing but they didn’t seem to mind. Right when we were seated at the table, James turned to me and said, “Ok, so where are we?”


The question hit the target. He didn’t ask, “how are you?” because he intuitively understood that my diagnosis wasn’t just about me. It was about his friend, my husband. It was about our three young children. And in that moment, I understood that it was about our larger circle of friends and community, too. The collective “we” communicated that he was in it with us, invested in the outcome. What a heartwarming message.


James’ question had the added benefit of being absent of a pitying or worried tone. James didn’t seem concerned that I was too fragile to be asked about my crisis. There was no tentative should-I-or-shouldn’t-I-bring-this-upness about it. His question was matter-of –fact and action-oriented. “Show me on the map,” it seemed to say, “so we can plot our next move.” I’ve always enjoyed the collaborative nature of scheming.


Then I said, “Great news! I am PROBABLY NOT GONNA DIE!” with the enthusiasm of someone who has just- mere moments ago- come to understand that she is not likely to imminently die as she had anticipated. You can imagine.  Or maybe you can’t. It’s probably better that you can’t, but for what it is worth, to believe in your heart you are going to die soon, and then hear that you are going to be allowed to go on, is just about the greatest gift that a human can experience. (I guess that is the premise on which most of the world’s religions are based, so I am not breaking new ground with this revelation.) Let’s just say it gives one perspective in its purest form. This is the gift my cancer has given to me. One that I hope I will continue to appreciate, even after I emerge from my fight.


So there I was basking in my perspective and gift and news, but when I looked at James, I was instantly snapped out of my sparkly epiphany. I did not see my relief returned in James’ gaze. He just blinked twice, skipped half a beat, and then wryly delivered, “well, Emily, I hate to break it to you, but actually you are going to die.” Then we all laughed our faces off.


Write that down and make it into a Hallmark card and send that to me when my hair has all fallen out in male-patterned-baldness-fashion (yes, that’s a thing). Put that in a bottle and serve it to me, please, on the days when my chemo has made me feel like I am losing my mind and I am unable to form coherent sentences. Extract the essence of that and spritz it right in my face when I start to take myself too seriously.


Maybe I appreciate humor more than the Average Jane, but I don’t think so. Funny is the best. Funny covers most ills. Funny can rescue anything. And James’ response is so funny. But it is so much more. There was no daintiness in the comment. It contained a vote of confidence in me. It said, “Emily, I believe you are hearty enough to take a joke right now.” It asked me to rise to the occasion, reminding me that I am strong enough to laugh at myself, resilient enough to find the humor.


It’s funny because it’s true. I will die. It’s funny because it pokes fun at my grandiosity. Humor like that activates one’s mind – calling one to recognize the various aspects about a joke that make it funny. It instantly creates a shared experience, which will become a memory. It is an unusually bright memory of smiling and laughter that shines enough light to drown shadows. It also serves as a poignant reminder to me to hold on to this gift my cancer has given me- the perspective to cherish my life because it will end someday.


A million years ago in a psychology class, I heard a professor describe memory as a file cabinet. Every time you pull out a specific experience from your memory (or file, as the professor would have it), you are stamping it with the current experience you are having while you are accessing it. That stamp becomes an integral part of the memory of the experience. If that’s true, and I believe it is, I have now stamped the file on my cancer with that hilarious exchange. Aside from the gift of a second chance at life, is there a greater gift you can give someone in crisis?


Let’s follow James’ example and stop being so afraid to stamp suffering with humor.

Sending love,
Dr Emily

P.S. If you need a primer on how to do this, just call up any one of my favorite people who aren’t afraid to let it rip. You know who you are. xo

Dr. Emily McClatchey is a child psychologist and mother of three young children. She is the founder and creator of Kidolences,® specially-formulated care boxes to help kids manage loss and change. Send your love to a child at www.kidolences.com.


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