The Strangeness of Bad News

First posted on Medium

Trigger warning: death, illness

Since March 2020, it sort of seems like the world has somehow shifted — more bad news pouring out of everyone’s mouths as the days creep by. For months, every phone call my family would get was about one loss or another, deaths, illnesses, people we know slipping away from this world. The ever-present fear of losing more people, ones in my family, and by family I don’t mean just my parents, is one always promising to engulf me, but at the same time filling me with such toxic numbness.

Hearing bad news, one after another, almost desensitizes you to it. You can hear it and think “oh”, feeling nothing. But knowing you should feel something more, feel the grief rising up inside you like a stormy wave, drowning you in its inescapable grip. I’ve become accustomed, over the year, to receiving news about various family members and friends illnesses, deaths — death has always been close to me. Being born so many years after my parents’ marriage, being practically two decades younger than some of my cousins, people I know are elderly, with grey hair and lines mapping their faces, stories of all their lives woven into each wrinkle.

When I was six, a paternal uncle I never knew, but wish I’d gotten the chance to see, passed away from a heart attack. A few months or a year later, my other uncle passed away, who was always so kind and got me snacks from the shops every time. Two or three years later, my nan passed away and I don’t remember what she looked like, a thought that breaks my heart. Even now, just thinking about this makes my eyes well up with tears. I have hazy memories of her, but what I know is that even with dementia affecting her, she always knew who I was. I wish I’d gotten more years with more, stronger memories. In the years following, another uncle passed away, my mum’s aunt passed away, and yet another paternal uncle passed away. I lost my paternal granddad’s brother, only months after visiting him in Bangladesh. The years wore on and I continued to hear about family deaths, one of the recent ones being an uncle I barely saw but whose death stilled me into shock. It’s going to be four years in June and it still breaks my heart remembering he’s no longer here.

Now, with the pandemic at an all-time high (thanks, government, you’ve done an amazing job at protecting us), I am constantly plagued by bad news after bad news after bad news. Majority of my family — extended included — are high risk. My aunts, my uncles, my parents, some of my cousins. Facing this, and then hearing about the terrifying C word, has terrified me.

When I was told about the cancer, I felt myself lull into a quiet state of shock, robotically asking “how early did they catch it?”

It was early, came the reply. Thank god, I remember thinking, because there’s a high chance of it being cut out. But with having COVID and being in a weak, frail state, we are all terrified for her — shaken with harrowing thoughts and jumping to the worst-case scenario.

As a family, and as a community, we all come together in times of need. In times of sickness, in the hard times.

But now, this is something we can’t do.

None of us can visit her. Hearing my mum crying about it, seeing the fear and the grief on her face, twists my insides. The past year hasn’t been easy, and she’s already worried about so many other things: her younger sister, who still doesn’t know because she’ll just make herself hysterical and sick with worry and panic, my dad, her nieces, and now this.

I don’t know if we’ve had anyone in my maternal side of the family have cancer, but being faced with it now is scary. It’s more than that: it’s cruel. I tried to comfort my mum, say that “the doctors caught it early, which is good because they can remove it and she may not get it back”, but words are just words. In times like this, she’ll want to be with her sister, talk to her, comfort her and her nieces and nephews. Family is a powerful thing, and the bonds of sisterhood seem to be something that makes them feel one another’s pain in the darkest moments.

It’s something I’ll never experience, at least not in this life, but it’s something I’ve seen time and again. The strangeness of hearing mum tell me this, whilst I was finishing off my green tea, was paramount. I felt nothing at first, just shocked, and then later, I was scared.

I was worried.

My mind was jumping all over the places and then I turned to the internet for answers. But through it all, I’m trying to remain positive. After all, they caught it early. But bad news has a way of channelling its negativity into us, making us wrack our brains with every thought and scenario until we’re numb and closed off to reality.

I don’t know whether it’s being a realist or being a pessimist, but either way — doesn’t thinking the worst make you more prepared? But even still, expecting it and experiencing it are two vastly different things. And though my mind is telling me to expect the worse, to be prepared, I’m telling myself to stay positive. She’ll be okay. We’ll all be okay. After all, we have faith and medicine on our side. Right?

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Sumaiya Ahmed is a freelance journalist and writer, aiming to break down the boundaries of cultural stigma and shame attached to mental health and sexuality within the South Asian culture, and bringing marginalised topics to light.

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