The leaderboard began as a joke. It then became a morbid competition. But ultimately it’s a way of coping with some of the truly awful things that people say to us.
I remember standing around my mother’s kitchen drinking huge mugs of tea: my mother, my sister-in-law and myself. This was only in the first few days after he’d died (her son, her partner, my brother). There had been a lot of phone calls to inform people of his death. Endless phone calls. Each one distinctly traumatic. Not a single person reacted to the news in quite the same way. We all got very good at framing the story and I can tell it now without any emotional involvement. But it never gets easier dealing with people’s reactions. They’re always unique. They always ask different questions. They always need different details or different reassurances. It’s draining. There’s got to be an easier way. I mean, do people still use singing telegrams?
I spent a few hours pacing up and down my mother’s front lawn until I wore a track into the grass. All the while, I called just about everyone in my phone from A-Z. It seemed slightly callous ringing people in alphabetical order rather than in order of importance or immediacy. But they all needed to be told. And I wanted them to hear it from me. So starting with ‘A’ made just as much sense as anything else.
I guess, statistically speaking, after that many phone calls you’re bound to get a few unusual reactions. But there were some that were unpredictably unfeeling. One of my friends told me that they were saddened by the news and in the next breath said, “Oh did I tell you, I’m planning a trip to Europe!” Someone else remarked, “Funnily enough, this is the second bit of bad news I’ve heard today!” And another friend stammered out in monotone, “There’s nothing I can possibly say to that, so maybe I’d be best just not saying anything. Goodbye.”
And so we met back in the kitchen with our respective teas, our mobile phone screens fogged over with tears, and shared some of the worse responses. At some stage incredulity turned into exasperated laughter, until one of us said to the other “I think you’re winning!” And so the leader board was born: an imaginary scoreboard that kept a running tally of who had had the worst thing said to them.
I found it easy to forgive some of the more inappropriate responses that I’d heard in the first few days. I had to remind myself that people were hearing the news for the first time and were clearly in shock. So when they needed me to stay on the line to console them until they stopped crying (rather than them asking me how I was coping), I tried to remember than none of us had really done this before and we were hardly going to be good at it. But it’s the outrageously insensitive things that people have said to me in the months since that I find harder to forgive. Would you like examples? Would you like examples organised into categories?
“I know exactly what you’re going through. When my cat died, I was so traumatised. I even had to take a few days off work.”
“That is such a coincidence. My next-door neighbour’s dog actually died last week.”
“I hope you sleep well. If you get lonely during the night, just remember my dog is watching over you. [She then points to urn of dog’s cremated ashes on the mantelpiece.]”
“It was a really bad year last year, as you know. Yours was worse. Oh no, actually mine was just as bad.”
“Sorry I can’t come to the funeral, but I went to one last year and I’m just a bit over it”
“You have no idea what grief is like. When I lost my [distant relative], I was inconsolable. I never got over it. And that was 15 years ago. You have no idea what that’s like.”
Making It Personal
“[Notices a photograph of my brother on the wall] “I hate that kind of photography.”
“You’ve always been such a kind, gentle person. But maybe this is what you needed to harden up a bit. You know, for your own good?”
So it looks like I’m back at the top of the leaderboard as of this morning.
The leaderboard is just a coping mechanism. It’s a way of adapting unjustifiable ignorance, cruel indifference or thinly-veiled insults into delightful black humour. It’s been the foundation of centuries of literature and theatre. And now, when met with injury and injustice, instead of bursting into tears or being jolted back into shock I think to myself, “I can’t wait to tell people about this!” So by all means, say awful things to me. Get yourself quoted on my blog. Gain internet fame. Keep me on top of the leaderboard. I’m not really winning at life at the moment and I’ve got to win at something.