waiting for bad news
February 18, 2022 9:23 AM   Subscribe

How do you cope when you are waiting for bad news?

...Basically that. Assuming you can't actually DO anything, all you can and are doing is waiting for the other shoe to drop.

In particular, I can't really focus on work due to my anxiety, dread and anticipatory grief. I have a number of meetings and deadlines coming up in the next couple of weeks which I may or may not be able to make depending on the status of the situation. I've given my manager a heads up but it's possible that due to my state of mind my anxiety about this is disproportionately bad.

I've been reaching out to my support network but there's nothing really that anyone can say/do to help. I've been thinking cleaning the kitchen or watching a romcom might help but not sure. I feel this sense of physical and emotional inertia which is making it hard to accomplish anything.

Your advice much appreciated as ever, Mefites.
posted by unicorn chaser to Religion & Philosophy (21 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Focus on what you can do right now. The future will take care of itself, somehow.
posted by SPrintF at 9:29 AM on February 18, 2022 [2 favorites]

Doing something, anything, would most likely help. Maybe you can use this list and pick something that you can do. At the very least, it'll help you pass the time.
Best of luck, I hope you can find some distraction and calmness.
posted by Too-Ticky at 9:33 AM on February 18, 2022 [1 favorite]

I think my Zen teacher would suggest doing something to move the energy you're feeling. So, something physically active.

I'd suggest something active that feels productive. As much as scrubbing the grout sucks, maybe grab a brush and some cleaner and focus on scrubbing the grout. Or the sink. Or whatever presents itself as a task that you could focus on while not listening to the brain-stuff.
posted by Lexica at 9:37 AM on February 18, 2022 [18 favorites]

You can try kicking the can down the road. When thoughts creep in, tell yourself that you don't need to think about that until next Thursday and you will deal with it then.

Every single time you start to think about it.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 9:40 AM on February 18, 2022 [3 favorites]

For me, binging low stakes television is really helpful in this circumstances because I can be utterly passive and let someone else's stories and narratives replace the drumbeat of doom in my head, even for a short time. Some shows that work well for me: New Girl, Brooklyn 99, Glow Up, Next in Fashion, MASH, Northern Exposure. A cup of warm tea also helps provide stimulation outside of my miserable thoughts and worries. I am sending you all the best. Hang in there.
posted by jeszac at 9:46 AM on February 18, 2022 [9 favorites]

Be aware of your inner dialogue. Change "If x happens, I will fall apart" to "if x happens, I will learn new ways of coping"
I have a bad habit of predicting and rehearsing worse case scenarios as if will prepare me, and protect me somehow when all it does is extend my anticipated stress. I try to accept that I don't know what will happen, and that's OK.
I try to be aware of when I'm catastrophising.
And I've realised that it's better and more effective to find reassurance in myself than to seek it from others.
That doesn't mean that I don't talk to my loved ones when I need to, but I try to be aware of when I'm just needing comfort that is better coming from inside myself.
Watching a rom com is a very good example of how to do that. Distract yourself with comforting, soothing activities.
Listen to a podcast like "nothing much happens" where the narrator had a kind, gentle presence.
I find it helps to acknowledge that I'm in a crap situation and that I am allowed to feel down, but that I can still find comfort and pleasure in small joys.
I hope you find ease and peace in this difficult time.
posted by Zumbador at 9:48 AM on February 18, 2022 [10 favorites]

Yeah, busywork is my usual strategy. I like the one-two punch of cleaning/sorting chores and binge TV - this is a great time to bring your junk drawers to the couch and sort them while watching Golden Girls.

Physical movement and exercise is also a means of completing the stress cycle. Getting some exercise in the morning before you have those unmovable work tasks may help you focus enough to do them.
posted by Lyn Never at 9:57 AM on February 18, 2022 [1 favorite]

Although it is important to keep busy, the trouble is that you have to keep busy with something that will not let thoughts creep in. If you have a typical office job, typing and interacting and making calls, there are often down periods or cracks to let the rumination creep in. I find working with my hands is key. Cleaning is good, but you will want to have a podcast or something to fill in the cracks. Baking, cooking -- these are good too -- something that will produce a tangible result that you actually want, instead of making you furious with its pointlessness. (This is a problem I have with a lot of cleaning tasks, but others don't feel the same way.)

A final thing I have learned is to accept that you are having a hard time, that the dread can't be eliminated and that you can't not think of something on command. Otherwise, conquering the dread will be another task you add to your pile, and it will make you twice as miserable because you can't do it.
posted by Countess Elena at 10:03 AM on February 18, 2022 [2 favorites]

(And just to add: I'm so sorry you're going through this. This kind of waiting is one of the worst parts of our lives and I wish you the very best.)
posted by Countess Elena at 10:07 AM on February 18, 2022 [4 favorites]

I had a slow-motion miscarriage, in which the numbers didn't rise appropriately, the embryo developed far too slowly, then stopped developing at all, then left my body.

It was over a month of waiting for the next nugget of bad news, the next dashing of smaller and smaller hopes.

Talking about it helped. Asking loved ones to not be rosy, and to acknowledge that things were probably not going to work out helped a great deal. I couldn't carry the hope of others.

But I couldn't talk all the time, and there was space to fill.

Find entertainment that is easy and comforts you, that you are familiar with. You don't want a plotline to pop up out of nowhere and remind you of what you fear.

Give yourself low stakes projects, do puzzles, paint your toenails.

Be gentle.

I'm sorry you are going through this.
posted by champers at 10:20 AM on February 18, 2022 [14 favorites]

I'm having a hard time understanding your question (and for that I apologize - clearly you're carrying a burden and it's not your job to explain yourself when you're looking for help).

But I think there are two kinds of anticipating bad news - when there's a chance it won't happen, and when you know it will happen, but you don't know how bad it will be.

Any other bad news, the sort that you know 100% will happen and you know how bad it will be because it doesn't involve degrees of terrible, it just simply is terrible (someone you know will die, you will be fired, divorce papers being served) - the best way to cope is to tell yourself it's already happened. There's nothing to gain by waiting for it, if it's inevitable. Let yourself grieve now, so that when the worst does happen, the pain might be blunted a bit. Try thinking about the event in the past tense, and seeing what feelings come.

If it's something that you know will happen, but you don't know how bad it will be, you might find it useful to be analytical about it. Thinking about or even writing down worst case scenarios, based on all of the things you're worried about, and what you think your response would be (emotionally and logistically) if that's how it happens. There's no way to know where on the sliding scale this will actually fall, or whether any of your ideas would even be right. But it's a way to quiet the anxiety a little by "planning" for it. Giving your brain something to do.

If it's something you still hope might not happen, and the pain of waiting comes from that last tiny bit of hope, it's okay to lean into that hope. To acknowledge that what's hardest about the waiting phase you're in is knowing that the bad thing happening might be made even worse because it will extinguish that hope. If you're someone who prays, asking for the best possible outcome can be useful - you're not asking for a miracle, just for whatever comes to be bearable. If you're not someone who prays, you might try taking some quiet time and meditating on how you would hope this bad thing would happen, and to accept that possibility - what the best way of it happening would be, what the best way for you to cope would be. To find the part of you that's spiraling into anxious painful thoughts, take deep breaths and slow them down a bit - they're not going anywhere, but you can make them more useful by examining them and trying to find ways to soothe them individually instead of beating yourself up for having them.

And I'm sure other people have mentioned it, or will (this has taken me a long time to type), but talking to a therapist about this will help, and getting out of the house and exercising a bit will help as well. When your brain is not letting you breathe about something, the best thing to do is usually to find ways to empty it by talking it out, or distract it by letting your body's needs take over.
posted by Mchelly at 10:23 AM on February 18, 2022 [6 favorites]

I went through this quite a bit in the last few years, first with a cancer diagnosis - which was *exactly* what I thought it would be; and then with a biopsy a year later.
The first was hard, and I’ve clearly blocked some of the feelings now, but I remember I had to force myself to not look at search results for the cancer I had (after, of course, reading one that stated “this cancer is a rare but fatal form…”). I also meditated, went for an hour walk every day (while listening to podcasts), and read a lot of light fiction (police detective novels, in my case),
The second was awful, because I was facing a possible recurrence of the cancer (it was benign) - and I barely coped. Anti-anxiety meds helped, as did talking with my husband.
I wasn’t working through any of this, so you have my deepest sympathy on whatever path this is. I wish you peace.
posted by dbmcd at 10:59 AM on February 18, 2022 [7 favorites]

Distraction, multisensory. Wear headset/ earbuds, listen to podcasts and walk or clean or cook. Cooking works well for me because it occupies a fair bit of mind & body and I can listen to music or news. Make chili, spaghetti sauce, bread, add to freezer. Then clean the kitchen. When a family member was dying, and we'd already gathered, I shopped and cooked as we waited for the inevitable. My sister watched movies. If you know anyone with a dog who like walks, they are usually soothing company.

I'm sorry the bad thing is happening.
posted by theora55 at 1:58 PM on February 18, 2022 [2 favorites]

Can you get some chemical help from your doctor? It can make the difference to be able to at least care for yourself through this, to even be able to get up and go for a walk, etc.

For me, walking. Anywhere I need to go, walk, even if it's a silly distance. Also comfort reading, which for me is re-reading book series I've read before - Terry Pratchett, Agatha Christie, certain fanfiction. Finally, really make an effort to have a conversation or at least connection (e.g. writing an email or letter) every day with someone who really loves me.
posted by Salamandrous at 2:22 PM on February 18, 2022 [2 favorites]

I'm so sorry you're going through this. My suggestions would be medication (like Ativan or similar); walking outdoors; and doing a jigsaw puzzle or working on a craft while listening to a podcast.
posted by leftover_scrabble_rack at 3:42 PM on February 18, 2022 [2 favorites]

This is a bit idiosyncratic, but during a time a few years back when I felt filled with dread for several months running, I carried this poem by one of MeFi's Own in my wallet. When I got distracted by my sadness at work, I would take it out and meditate on it for a couple of minutes. I actually think it's still in there, nestled behind a different poem for better times.

I also carried a self-help book in my purse, one I've recommended in this space before, called Things Might Go Terribly, Horribly Wrong. It's a book that aims to teach distress tolerance, basically: learning to sit with your dread and your grief and just let them be as they are. It is not easy to do. I haven't mastered it. I will say that when I am able to apply the techniques, it is surprisingly relaxing to hear my own inner voice narrating my discomfort back at me without judgment. And surprisingly different from ruminating. I can't explain it.

I was not able to be as productive as usual at work during these months, honestly. I wasn't sleeping, I was only sort of eating, and I was in a constant whirlwind of appointments. Work had to cope with a slightly less rockstar version of me. They coped. We all made it through.

Wishing you peace with your waiting.
posted by eirias at 4:52 PM on February 18, 2022 [3 favorites]

I played a lot of Civilisation, read stacks of light romance and mystery novels and planned for what would happen if x, y or z happened. Having concrete plans was helpful to me.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 5:12 PM on February 18, 2022

Walking helps me a lot.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 5:14 PM on February 18, 2022

If you can't stop thinking about something, you can try to think through it and beyond it to a good place.

For example if you are waiting to get the phone call that says your mother is in her last hours, or that she has passed away, don't try to suppress the thought but when the thought hits you, accept it and then move on to thinking about the future that lies after the funeral. Think thoughts like where you and your sibs will meet now, if not at her home. Maybe you'll alternate visiting each other? Think thoughts about if you'll make a tradition of visiting her grave. Would you enjoy that or would be just sad? Think about the handful of things that are hers that you will keep to remember her by and what will be most likely to provide you with a smile instead of triggering your grief. Think thoughts about how you won't have to have green bean casserole at Christmas, when she was the only one that liked it and insisted on it.

Of course you would rather have her healthy and safe and green bean casserole every week, but the future is headed at you, unstoppable. You can start imagining what the new normal will be after the bad news is received. The bad event is going to happen. But after it happen you are still going to be around and doing stuff (unless the bad news is your own terminal prognosis). If you are going to be around and doing stuff, there will still be interesting and pleasant stuff that will happen.

Often when something bad is anticipated it feels so big that we stop thinking about what will come after. It feels like annihilation, as if the future is going to stop dead at that moment when the boyfriend dumps us, or when we get fired, or when we lose our license, or when our mother is no longer with us. But of course in reality things will happen after the big event and our base level of happiness is likely to return to where it was beforehand. Thinking about the long future - long after the big event is a good way to reduce anxiety and give you a handle on the fact that you will have a future even after it has occurred. It will help make the big trauma that is about to hit more manageable.
posted by Jane the Brown at 6:18 PM on February 18, 2022 [5 favorites]

Two things have helped me:

First, I remember that I can’t change the outcome (if this applies), so try to put some attention and energy towards things that can bring me happiness. It can be small, like smelling flowers, or going to a dance class, or for a walk.

Second, I listen to guided meditations. They force me to sit still when I’m spiralling and listening to the words makes me think of something besides my own anxiety and worry and grief. Sometimes rose things break through anyway but I can process them in a more constructive way.

I am wishing you well.
posted by stillmoving at 11:40 AM on February 19, 2022 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Hey Mefites, I have received the bad news I was dreading. Thank you very much for your advice and for sharing your personal experiences. Honestly, being able to read all these different perspectives really helped. This is such a kind, compassionate corner of the internet. I'm so glad I found it.
posted by unicorn chaser at 9:11 AM on March 4, 2022 [3 favorites]

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