Responding to Bad News
A Profound Prognosis
How do you respond when you receive bad news about a family member’s health? Are you supposed to express surprise, murmur condolences, or ask questions? I have no idea, but this is the dilemma I was in when my mom called and said my dad just left the doctor’s office with a very poor prognosis. He learned he will soon be confined to a wheelchair because his right knee is riddled with arthritis, which, in turn, is affecting his ability to walk. While the exact time span of this event cannot be determined, the doctor does know it’ll be soon.
My stomach dropped when my mom told me this. The first image I had was of my dad, tall and muscular with a body like an action hero, losing the ability to walk. I know that news like this can plunge somebody into the darkest depths of despair, evoking some to even say, “I’d rather be dead than spend the rest of my life in a wheelchair.” My concern is that he’ll be one of these people; he's not the type to willfully lose his independence. His fight with this particular affliction, however, is about to draw to a close, and I’m not sure he can handle the results.
Twenty-three years ago, he was involved in a near-fatal car accident that changed his life forever. He lost the abilities to work and drive because his body suffered such severe trauma. In the accident, he hit the windshield twice, which broke his nose and dislodged a disk in his spine. Since then, he’s been in and out of numerous surgeries to repair the damage caused by that accident. But none of the procedures has been able to correct his knee, which hit the dashboard of the car and shattered on impact. Medicine repaired the bone, but the subsequent loss of cartilage and ligaments cannot be fixed. Arthritis has been sitting in the knee joint, growing like a tumor, ever since the accident.
My dad is only 52 years old. He is mentally strong and determined to continue using his body for all the things he’s always done. It seems, though, that he’s not physically able to keep up with what he wants.
Then & Now
When my mom broke this news to me, I sat in stunned silence for several moments. I couldn't erase from my mind the image of him sitting feebly in a wheelchair. I’m not saying all people confined to wheelchairs are weak, but rather that his physical inability to move and walk freely could break his spirit.
When I was young, I remember chasing him in the backyard, his strength and speed infinitely superior to my own. He gave my sister and I piggyback rides, carried us when we were tired, and did pushups with us on his back. Of course, all of this was before his accident, but childhood memories like that never fade.
Now, I’m equally worried about both my mom and dad. My mother will be responsible for his care, and I fear she won’t be up for the challenge. Not only will she need to attend to his physical needs, but she’ll also have to manage his emotions - no small task, either of them.
Whether or not my worried response to my father's prognosis is appropriate, the news itself certainly puts life into perspective. As I age, I realize just how fragile our existences are. We can be physically fit, eat nutritious foods, care for our mental states, and maintain healthy relationships, but, in the end, we’re each just as fragile as anyone else. It frightens me to think of my parents losing their health. Actually, it terrifies me. I can only pray that God helps us through this next calamity.