Print   |   Back
December 18, 2014
The Real Issue
Responding to Bad News
by Cyndie Swindlehurst


What should you say when a friend shares with you her bad news, like getting cancer? Or tells you about something hard that’s going on, like infertility or marital problems or learning that a child has a disability?


When a person shares bad news with you, or tells you about a difficulty in her life, it is usually for one of two reasons. One, she wants you to know because she wants to talk about it. Two, she wants you to know even though she doesn’t want to talk about it.

Some people will come right out and tell you that something bad is happening, but they don’t want to talk about it. But usually, it is up to you, as the listener, to respond to the bad news in a way that is sensitive enough to invite a conversation, if desired, but that also reassures the person that you will respect her privacy, if desired, by not pressing her on the issue.

With that goal in mind, here are nine suggestions.

First, when a person shares bad news with you, give her your undivided attention. She is telling you something important and personal. You should fix your attention on her in such a way that she knows that she has the floor and that you are listening.

In regular conversation, you might listen to her story and then respond with a similar story of your own, to show you understand. But in this case, where she is sharing something difficult and personal, you should not draw attention back to yourself with a story of your own. Instead, you should acknowledge the magnitude of her revelation by not equating it to anything that is happening in your own life.

Even if you have been through the exact same problem (and I mean exact), your comment should be limited to, “I’ve been through that, too, and it’s awful. I’m so sorry.” There will be time later for you to share your experience.

Second, say something appropriate and sincere. For example, “Oh, Clara. I’m so, so sorry,” or “Oh, Ruth. Oh, no,” or “Marie, I’m so sorry to hear that,” or, for non life-threatening challenges, “Wow, Jean, that sounds really hard.”

You should match the degree of your expression of sadness to the kind of trouble your friend is experiencing. Learning that a child is dyslexic, for example, is a trouble and a challenge. But it is not the same kind of challenge as learning that a person’s mother has cancer.

Keep your expression open, looking at your friend as if she has something more to say. You want her to know that you are available to talk if she wants to talk, but that you are also willing to drop the subject entirely until she wants to talk about it again, which may be never.

You could also ask gentle questions like, “When did you find out,” “What does that mean,” or “What will happen next,” as a way of showing that you care. And if your friend wants to talk, she will talk. But if your friend does not wish to discuss the issue, you should be willing to sit in sympathetic silence until she changes the topic.

If you are unsure how your friend feels about the news, express sympathy anyway. If she is not actually sad (e.g. her brother is getting divorced but she’s glad because his wife is no good), or if she is optimistic (e.g. she is relieved to finally get an accurate diagnosis for her child), she will tell you.

Third, consider a physical expression of support, like a hug or a touch on the arm. I say “consider,” because not everyone enjoys being touched, and not every friendship is a hugging friendship. But if you feel like a warm embrace or a reassuring hand would show that you care, do it.

Fourth, don’t overdo it. Remember that your friend is the one with the problem, not you. Even if you are devastated at the news, remember that she is more devastated. And that she is the one who must actually live with the situation. Don’t react so strongly that she ends up comforting you.

Fifth, do not make jokes — every wry, ironic jokes. Your friend is the only person authorized to introduce bleak humor to the situation.

Here are some other things you will not do because — coming from you — they will not help or comfort her:

Sixth, keep her news confidential. Even if her story or situation becomes public knowledge (as a divorce will), do not reveal any details. You do not know whether she has told other people as much of the story as she has told you.

Seventh, going forward, remember that not every conversation with her needs to be about her problem. She will probably not be sad every minute of every day. She will probably continue to read books, watch TV, follow current events and play Words with Friends, all of which are enjoyable, distracting activities about which you can converse.

So when you see her, greet her with a warm smile, saying “Hi,” or “It’s nice to see you today.” If you want to ask after her problem after you have exchanged pleasantries, try, “How are things going,” but without a tragic look on your face. Her response will tell you whether or not she wants to discuss her troubles. And if she doesn’t, you should be happy to discuss something else.

Eighth, also going forward, if you want to help your friend, make specific offers. “I’d like to help you decorate your house for Christmas,” you might suggest to a friend who is unwell. “Can I come over one morning this week? I love decorating for the holidays, and it would be fun to spend time with you.”

You could also ask to drive her to an appointment, iron her clothes, clean her bathrooms, tend her children or take her to lunch. You could plant flowers, bake bread, help her sort through her late husband’s papers, lend her your Medium DVDs, or bring her some ice cream.

Now, a caution. You may want to dive in and help someone despite her protestations. And in some cases it is necessary to insist that a person accept help. However, when some people say “no,” they actually mean “NO.” As in, “I’d rather have a dirty bathroom than have you clean my house.”

You need to be able to tell the difference. If your help will distress your friend, you should find some other way to be supportive.

Finally, be sensitive. If your friend is infertile, don’t complain about being pregnant. If her husband has lost his job, don’t complain that you can’t afford the full week at Disneyland. If her child is having trouble at school, don’t gush about your own child’s accomplishments.

This is not to say you cannot discuss the things that are important in you life; there is no need to conceal your own troubles or happiness, nor would she want you to — it would weaken your friendship if only she were allowed to have troubles express her worries.

But you should always consider first what your comments will sound like to her. And you should not complain about having things that she wishes she had, too.

Copyright © 2024 by Cyndie Swindlehurst Printed from