The telephone was once the culprit. When it rang at 2 or 3 a.m., you knew it meant bad news. Now, in the era of 24/7 communications, we receive bad news at any time and in any form, whether it’s an email, text message, Skype, Facetime, Facebook post, Twitter or even Facebook messaging.

The telephone is no longer the primary harbinger of bad news.

Knowing that bad news can and will arrive at any time, will you be prepared?

I thought I was; after all, I share in my blog myriad ways to listen and support people who are ill and bereaved. My experience with a dear friend taught me that what you advocate and how you navigate personal issues are very different things.

My odyssey began with what seemed to be an ordinary phone call. My friend, I'll call her Sarah, and I chatted frequently, so an afternoon call was no cause for alarm. Sarah asked how my family was doing, and I launched into an update on everyone’s news. It wasn’t until I paused that Sarah said, “There’s something I need to tell you.” I knew immediately that this was bad news and I prepared myself to listen carefully. Sarah shared that she was diagnosed with a terminal illness for which there was no treatment. She talked at length, and when there was a pause I asked, “How are you doing with this?” And while I wanted to know how long she had to live, I eventually asked instead, “What are the doctors saying?”

The next few years tested my ability to listen and be supportive in challenging times. I was always conscious of protecting my friend’s privacy but would inquire, “How are you feeling?” I did my best to listen attentively and tried not to comment unless asked for an opinion.

But what did me in was not what I said or actions that I took; it was my facial expressions. I had told Sarah that she could tell me anything and I would be there for her. When she shared one day that after spending an enjoyable morning with her grandchild she was at peace and ready to die, she said my expression was one of shock and she would spare me from future musings; and, unfortunately she did.

Early this year I received an email with the subject line, "Sarah died tonight.” Other friends were equally shocked to learn of Sarah’s death via Facebook. But the reality is, is it any more shocking or sad to learn bad news via social media or online communications?

This is what I learned from Sarah’s illness and death. When bad news strikes, take a deep breath and prepare to listen. Carefully gauge what you will say and how you will respond. Bear in mind that someone is seeking an outlet, not advice. If you are face-to-face, try to maintain a neutral expression. Most of all, keep it simple; sometimes the best response is, “I’m so sorry to hear this.”


Robbie Miller Kaplan is an author who writes from a unique perspective as a mother who has lost two children. She has written How to Say It When You Don't Know What to Say, a guide to help readers communicate effectively when those they care about experience loss, now at a reduced price for e-books for "Illness & Death," "Suicide," "Miscarriage," "Death of a Child," "Death of a Stillborn or Newborn Baby," "Pet Loss," "Caregiver Responsibilities," "Divorce" and "Job Loss." All titles are in Amazon's Kindle Store.

Image courtesy of the author

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