A friend has some bad news, and he’s just shared it with you. It’s truly bad news, as opposed to the usual car trouble, job complaints or girlfriend issues. Someone he love has died, or he’s just been given a terrifying medical diagnosis, or he’s been the victim of a crime. What do you say that will make him feel better, or at least not make it any worse?
Rule 1: Forget yourself
When someone comes to you with awful news, forget yourself. The next few minutes are all about him. Forget your awkwardness, your fear of saying the wrong thing, your discomfort at being reminded what awful things could happen to you, too. Don’t start telling stories about the time something awful happened to you to show you understand – your friend can’t focus on that right now. Focus completely on your friend.
And while we’re at it, don’t be checking your email or responding to your cell phone while he’s unburdening. Forget everyone else in the world, just for a few minutes.
Rule 2: There’s no right thing to say
How could there possibly be a “right” response to “I’ve got cancer” or “my cat just died” or “my son’s been in an accident”? Your friend isn’t looking for you to say the right thing. He just wants you to be there. Once you realize nothing you could say would be enough, it gets easier to say something sincere and natural, which is what he’s looking for. Some ideas include:
- “Oh, no.” Where “I’m sorry” puts the focus on you, a simple heartfelt “Oh, no” echoes roughly how he felt when he got the news. In echoing his feelings, you give him the sense he’s not alone.
- “How are you feeling?” It sounds ridiculously obvious to you, but many people are surprised at their feelings when they receive terrible news and welcome a chance to talk about it.
- “I’d feel the same way” is a comforting response if your friend says he’s feeling very angry or worried – those can be scary emotions.
If you ask your friend how he’s feeling, he’ll likely say:
- “About like you’d expect.” That means he’s holding it together, but he may be still in denial or not really taking in what the bad news means yet.
- “I don’t know.” Sometimes we just go numb. This is normal and healthy.
- “I’m so, I dunno, I’m just so angry.” Your friend realizes this sounds odd – it’s not how people react to bad news on TV. But again, strong feelings of anger, sadness and even irrational guilt are completely normal, and it would help to reassure him of that.
Rule 3: Never tell him how to feel/take over
Whatever you do, do not tell him to cheer up or “It could’ve been worse” or “You still have a lot to be grateful for” or “The Lord works in mysterious ways.” Not for a long time yet, anyway. Give him time to feel as negative as he’s going to. Once he works through those feelings, he’ll be ready to find ways to feel better. Remember that no emotion is inappropriate; only actions. He is entitled to feel whatever he’s feeling, so let him.
Some people like to take over when someone they care about has been hurt. You may be tempted to start shopping around for the very best doctor to handle your friend’s illness, or to jump into the middle of funeral arrangements so the family doesn’t have to be burdened with it all. Those are wonderful gestures to offer, but your friend has just been reminded how little control we really have over our lives. Your taking over will just reinforce that. Make it clear that you want to help and suggest ways you think you could help, but let him tell you what he’d like you to do.
Make a gesture
Offering to do something for your friend is very comforting, even if he turns you down. You might offer to:
- Look after his kids so he can have some time alone, or time to make arrangements, or time to deal with the changes this bad news will make in his life.
- Take him out to dinner to get his mind off the bad news.
- In the case of a death, your friend will probably volunteer stories about the deceased. Listen and show interest. This honors the person’s memory, and your friend’s feelings for him or her.
The most important thing in all of this is: be sincere. If you sincerely care about your friend and wish he wasn’t going through this, he’ll pick that up no matter how many “wrong” things you say or do.