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How to Respond to Bad News

Image of worried child hugging his mom. Raleigh Psychotherapy, counseling, bad news, Katherine Broadway

Recently, a dear friend of mine was diagnosed with cancer. Because we are so close, I have been with her when she has told the news to the people in her life. I have watched their reactions, and her reaction to them. The reactions have ranged from a matter-of-fact response from the nurses she knows to bewilderment, anger, outrage, tears and fear. I have also seen the “deer in the headlights” reaction. Then, there are those who immediately went into a story of some unknown person who suffered from cancer, or who immediately changed the subject. In one instance, one of the women in the group began sweeping her hands in the air saying, "Let's clear the air of negative energy." I watched my friend tell the news with her own personal reactions to telling the story. There are times when she knew the person well enough to predict their reaction. She was touched by the feelings that they expressed because she knew whether it was matter-of-fact, tears, anger, sadness or fear each reaction came specifically in response to their love and care for her.


What I saw in the reactions of the ones who heard the news was bewilderment. How could this happen to her? In every respect, she is the epitome of health. In the words of her oncologist, “All her tests were perfect.” Her friends did not have words to express how they were feeling. They did not know what to say, yet they still felt the need to say or do something. My friend came to the point where she did not want to tell people because she found these awkward expressions difficult to handle; the stories were hard for her to hear.


My friend's experience speaks to any situation where there is serious illness, losses and tragic events. They are hard to hear about. They remind us of our powerlessness. For humans, feeling powerless is the hardest feeling to bear. In that moment when you hear your friend's story, you become a part of the story. Knowing what to say can be difficult. Here are some suggestions to help you. 1. Thank you so much for telling me:

In moments of helplessness, one very important antidote is to know that there is someone to share your burden. That does not mean someone to fix the situation or to do something. It means that another human being is there with you to witness your pain. Saying you feel privileged to be a part of the situation means, I am with you.

2. Be an active listener:

Sometimes all that is needed is a calm, attentive presence to provide real comfort. My friend was impressed and reassured by her friends that were nurses. They listened with complete focus and attention. They possessed an attitude that conveyed that this was a situation to be dealt with and that what needed to be done would be accomplished. Theirs was not an overly emotional response, it was matter of fact interest and quiet reassurance.

3. Ask whether there is anyone they would like for you to contact for them:

When a serious illness or life crisis occurs, there are many people that need to know. While telling your story can be helpful, it can also be exhausting. Jim tells the story of when his sister died unexpectedly, he was left with the burden of informing everyone who needed to know. For him it was one of the most painful experiences he had to face. He felt alone. 4. Make specific offers of help:

Offers of help are touching and appreciated. The problem with offers of help is that it is hard for people to ask. No matter how sincere the offer, a serious problem makes it even harder to reach out and ask for help. It take far less energy to do without. Be specific about the help you can give. 5. Follow up with an email, text or phone call:

Repeat your offer with specific details. Make offers to perform everyday tasks. I can cook a meal, do yard work, take the garbage out or clean part of your house. Organize a group to help. Give specific times you are available. 6. Food, food, food:

A simple offer to bring food once a week means more than you can imagine. Everyone needs to eat and it can be a burden to even think about what to cook, much less find the energy to follow through. 7. Don’t forget: My neighbor was divorced after many years of marriage. In the beginning, friends would call, check on her and help her. As time moved on, so did her friends. What they did not realize was that after a crisis, it takes time to fully recover and people need continued attention. It only takes a few words to be comforting and supportive. Helping is not always about doing something, it is about a caring, compassionate response. A simple “thank you for letting me know what is going on in your life” goes a long way and is a good alternative to “I’m sorry.”


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