how to react to sad news

There’s never a good time for terrible news.

I was alone in a hotel room when I found out my cousin Arthur Bruce died. My brother Art called to deliver the news and I didn’t know how to react. I was traveling for work and running late, and it felt like I was in shock; my body was on autopilot while my head was trying to figure out how to emotionally process the unexpected news. I wondered if I’d get to the office in time. I didn’t want to (and never did) tell anyone at work about it, because I don’t know what to do in these situations. I don’t know how to react to tragic, unexpected things. I don’t want people to see me sad, and I never want to burden anyone with my sadness.

I tried to remember the last time I’d seen Arthur. Carrie and I stayed with him during my tour a few years back and she had left earlier than me to fly back to Las Vegas. When I emerged from the guest room the next morning, Arthur and his sweet but wary daughter Cadence were already awake. She was carrying a little plastic golf club and gave me the usual suspicious stare. “Sorry, the one you like is gone,” Arthur said to her, never missing the opportunity for a good joke.

The morning I left, he had me sign his guitar. At first I thought he was kidding, but he handed me a marker and had me do it. He made sure I knew how to get to the highway and had someone to stay with in Dallas.

Years ago (1996, I think?) I flew to Memphis to visit some family, including Arthur, and later drove to New York City with my uncle Skip to see The Who perform Quadrophenia. I spent some time with Arthur, which included him taking me for a haircut. The barber was really nice, and after we left Arthur told me, “He really seemed to like you. He probably would’ve taken you out to dinner – you wouldn’t have had to do anything.” Arthur also said I should’ve asked the barber to shave my mustache (all peach fuzz).

When my uncle Skip and I were getting ready to leave, Arthur opened his wallet and pulled out some bills, contemplating the amount. “That should be enough to get you a decent prostitute out there,” he said, handing the money to me. Always with the joking. I give Arthur at least some of the credit/blame for the inappropriate part of my sense of humor.

When Lou Reed died a few days after Arthur Bruce the grief hit even harder. The first time I realized I could sing my own songs with my very imperfect voice was when my dad played Lou Reed’s New York for me. One of the earliest and most encouraging reviews of my music (my first poorly executed release) came from Arthur Bruce; he emailed me and wrote something like “I always wondered what would happen if Lou Reed met Leonard Cohen.” These words of encouragement still mean so much to me and I probably never told him that.

I don’t really know how to deal with death. I don’t know why some memories stand out more compared to others, or why these moments seem so monumental now. Maybe we just process, accept, grieve, and pay tribute however we can. Maybe we shouldn’t ask, and we just have to hold onto the good memories long enough to make the sadness manageable.

I promise my next post will be happier. Celebrate life and make sure the people you love know how much they mean to you.


  • This is a very sad post although it is wonderfully well written and from the heart. I am so sorry for the loss of your precious cousin and this is a great tribute to your favorite memories of him. I feel the same way, I never know what to say or do, or how to act, maybe that is how everyone feels when they are told shocking news. I know the circle-of-life is necessary, but it is still heartbreaking. It is okay for you to let others see your sadness and know they can empathize with you. Love and hugs, Joan.

  • I am sorry for you loss Zach. Keeping the memories close helps me. I try to find as many pictures and stories as I can about the person to help with that. Your tribute is so touching. I also am not surprised that in your time of loss you are thinking of others. Love and hugs to you and all who knew and loved Arthur. Stacy

  • Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and condolences, Joan and Stacy.

  • Dear Son,
    I knew this would hit you hard and hated having to tell you. Out of you, Art, and Tosh , Lucille and I thought you reminded us most of Arthur. He loved and cherished you. He loved playing guitar and I know he was happy and proud to have a cousin who had the musical perseverance you enjoy. We will grieve for a time, then smile and be lifted by the memories of his love and humor:) Love you, Dad


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