Bearers of bad news burdened with heavy load

Telling others about tragic events can be uncomfortable at best

Special to The TribuneJuly 16, 2013 

Telling others about tragic events can be uncomfortable at best.

DETROIT FREE PRESS

Sometimes we face horrible situations and we must let others know what’s happened. Perhaps a son has been killed in Afghanistan and we need to inform loved ones and friends of his death.

The thought of telling family and friends can add to our unbearable sadness and loss. We know we need to do it. In fact, we’re counting on their support. Still, we worry about when’s the best time.

If the news is fresh, we’re uncomfortable with our new story. We’re in astate of shock and denial. We’re unfamiliar with tests, diagnoses or procedures. Strangers may be calling at all hours of the day and night, telling us what to do or where to go. Our days assume a surreal pallor. We’re unsure about what’s happening next.

Schedules may be packed with appointments or the completion of endless tasks. Or we may be staring into an abyss of emptiness and silence. Either way, we feel as if we’re in a nightmarish freefall. The ground is nowhere in sight.

If a few weeks have passed and we’re out of the immediate crisis, we may be reluctant to open old wounds. We’ve moved on to another emotional level. But we realize that other people have not. They’ll be hearing the news for the first time. They’ll be shocked and incredulous, just as we were. They’ll have questions and emotions of their own. We must be available to shoulder their grief, to support them through the process. Yet we may not possess the energy to begin those difficult conversations.

Often we inform people in concentric circles. We tell the inner circle right away. We want our core team at the mortuary or by our bedside. They can be lifesavers by feeding the dog in our absence or taking the kids for a few days. Outlying groups are notified as we have time and energy. Sometimes phone trees or blogs are useful tools for keeping them updated. It’s not that those folks are less valuable. It’s a matter of conserving fragile resources.

Of course, we may not have the luxury of choosing when and with whom we share our news. Events that occurred in a public setting or have been reported in the newspaper or on television will create legions of well-meaning acquaintances clamoring for information and answers. Or word may have leaked out about our situation and spread nonstop along the social grapevine. Not only must we deal with our own personal trauma, but we’re also forced to tow others in our wake.

There’s no rush to inform people before we’re ready. In fact, it’s advisable to withhold those conversations until we’re feeling up to the task. We’ll know when we’re ready to make those phone calls. Until then, we need to take care of ourselves and the painful chores we face.

WHAT TO SAY WHEN SOMEONE SHARES THEIR BAD NEWS

Say “I’m so sorry” about what’s happened. This simple expression of empathy conveys the depth of your feeling and offers comfort to the aggrieved. Don’t worry about being more eloquent. Those few words say it all.

Say “Thank you for telling me.” You relate two important sentiments. First, you recognize how challenging it is to share the information. Second, you understand that the teller holds you in high regard and wanted to tell you personally. Acknowledging the trust strengthens your emotional bond.

Ask “How can I help?” Offer assistance however you can. Consider buying groceries, mowing the lawn, paying bills or going to the hospital. You may even act on the spur of the moment by dropping off dinner on your way home from work.

Never share your own story. The last thing the aggrieved wants to hear is your personal experience. That distracts the focus away from the current tragedy while saying, “My story is more important than yours is.”

Call in a month. The aggrieved may not need immediate help, but will most likely experience changes for months to come. Make a note to call in four weeks and ask how things are going. The aggrieved will appreciate your show of support at a time when others’ concern may be waning.

Linda Lewis Griffith is a local marriage and family therapist. For information or to contact her, visit lindalewisgriffith.com .

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