there is a fair amount of talk about how to break bad news. truth be told i think i'm fairly good at it. sometimes, however it can leave quite an impression.
i was a community service doctor in qwa-qwa. i was working in casualties when they came in. two young children had been playing on the side of the street with a spinning top when a drunk driver came careening off the tar and ran them down. apparently in his drunken state he couldn't negotiate the turn.
the patients were cousins. we shuffled them both into the resus room and closed the door. one was about four and the other was six. the bigger one was dead. the smaller one had only minor abrasions. we covered the body of the big boy and cleaned and bandaged the wounds of the little boy. then we waited for the family.
a side story here was that the drunk driver who realised he was in trouble asked me to only draw the blood for alcohol levels the next day and lie about it. he even offered me money. he didn't specify how much. i was amazed at the inherent selfishness of people. there was a dead child in the resus room and this man was only concerned about the consequences as they pertained to him and him alone.
finally two family members arrived. the old woman was the grandmother of both children. her daughter who was with her was the mother of one child and the aunt of the other child. we moved them into a closed room where i was to speak to them. there was not going to be an easy way to do this, but i remember thinking that i really hoped the mother was the mother of the living child. it would make my job easier and their job when they got home more difficult.
i started by explaining the nature of the accident. i went on to explain that these types off accidents can cause severe injury. i then as gently as possible said that one child was already dead when he arrived and we couldn't help him, but the other child was ok. the mother immediately looked at me directly, something she had not done up to that point and asked with desperation both in her voice and etched into the lines on her face;
"which one? which one is dead?" the grandmother did not react outwardly, but a tear rolled down her one cheek.
i remember clenching my jaws, hoping that the woman before me was the mother of the living child and not the dead one. the news would still be bad, but at least for her personally there would be a good slant on it.
"the older child is dead."
it looked like someone shot her. her entire body contorted and she dropped to the floor. she started screaming. the grandmother didn't move, but the tears flowed more freely down both her cheeks. between the screams of the mother of the big boy, for that is what she was, the grandmother simply said;
"this is a terrible and difficult thing"
i was shaken. i didn't want to let the casualty staff see me cry so i swallowed hard, wiped my eyes and went back to work. besides casualties was full and i didn't have the privilege of taking time off to get over my trauma. anyway it didn't compare to the woman lying crumpled up on the floor of the office sobbing .