There are bad phone calls, and then, there are really bad phone calls, like the ones in which you’re forced to give someone news that a loved one was in an accident or worse — they've died.
On Twitter, author Naomi Alderman shared some advice from a doctor on this very task and why remaining clear is the most important thing you can do. What should you do when you’re entrusted to give someone tragic news about a loved one?
I spoke to Jill Cohen, a family grief counselor, about how to share unfortunate news, why being concise is key, and the importance of making sure the recipient is in a safe place when they’re receiving it:
If you're not careful, your well-meaning condolences can make you sound like a total arse. The trick to offering your sincere sympathy to the bereaved is knowing what to avoid while you show your support. These are the seven big no-no's.
Don’t break the news in a voicemail
Say you’re not able to see them in person. You call instead and it goes unanswered. Should you leave a message explaining the events? No, according to Cohen. You can’t guarantee they’re in a position to receive bad news (say they’re on the road. You wouldn’t want them to panic).
Instead, just state that it’s bad news and find an available time to speak. “‘I have some news that will probably be distressing to you,’” she suggested. “‘Or I have some bad news that I, unfortunately, have to break to you, when it’s OK to talk.’”
When you start the conversation, make it 100 per cent clear who or what is involved. “When people hear that there’s bad news coming they not even really listening or absorbing it,” she said. “They’re sort of figuring this all out before you say it.”
Assuage any doubt by clarifying from the get-go and don’t launch into long-winded stories. “Although it’s hard to do, don’t make an elaborate story whereby the answer could be that the person didn’t die — because now [they’re] beginning to think they may have come through,” she said.
When my father died suddenly six years ago, I wasn't prepared for the waves of grief that washed over me in the aftermath of his death. In the midst of funeral preparations, I waded through decisions over flowers, services and gravestones as though in a fog. It was all I could do to keep it together as we went through the painful process of saying goodbye.
Have answers ready
When you’re dispensing bad news, stop yourself from contacting whoever you need to tell immediately, and instead get as much information as much as possible beforehand. According to Cohen, usually, the immediate response is a series of questions that you’ll want to be able to answer. “You’re in the position of breaking the news and probably helping with the next step,” she said, which could include booking a flight home or other suddenly urgent necessities.
If you don’t have the answers, that’s OK, too. Let them know you’ll share details with them once that becomes available to you.
Of course, don’t add to the chaos of the situation. Just remain calm, as Cohen recommends, and allow them sufficient time to process (which will likely mean a number of questions). And if you’re not the type to stay calm or are also affected by the situation, ask another loved one to do the deed.
“If you’re going to confuse them, then it’s really not helpful,” she said. “You can have your partner or your husband or your friend do it.” Have a number of these calls to make? Have a friend nearby to comfort you (it’s not an easy task for you, either).
Have a script
If the entirety of the task feels overwhelming, Cohen recommends just writing up a brief script. Write down everything in order, from who is involved to answers you will have to provide. And as aftercare, check up on them if it’s someone close to you in a way that feels appropriate (do you typically speak on the phone? Do you usually text?).
And if you don’t know the person well, sometimes you’re just the bearer of bad news and nothing more. That’s ok, too. Let them know you’re there if they need answers and your job may be done.
This article has been updated since its original publication.