It’s very probable that all of us know the feeling when a friend surprises us with really bad news, such as a possible terminal medical diagnosis.

For me, bad news can feel like a kick to the gut. I make an effort to stay bravely positive and present for my friend, but all the while I’m thinking, “Oh no, pancreatic cancer!? not again! I’ve already lost two friends.”

Even as we hear the news, our minds may start racing ahead, thinking through scenarios, wondering…

What Do I Say?

Do you say:

  1. “At least stage three cancer is better than stage four.”
  2. “I’m coming over in 15 minutes and I’ll cook you dinner.”
  3. “Oh, no! No, no, no. That’s terrible!”
  4. “Don’t worry. I know someone who went to this doctor in Mexico for a treatment and now she’s cured.”
  5. “I’m so sorry… do you want to tell me more?”

I know that your intentions are good, and your friend will hear the care and love in your words, but based on what I’ve learned from friends in need, I’d be careful about using responses A-D.

Response “A” attempts at being cheerful without really listening to what your friend is feeling. “B” tries to be caring, but rushing in to help before you know what your friend wants or needs (dinner, to talk, solutions, etc.) may make things worse.

“C” displays your sympathy but may make your friend feel like she has to console you. “D” gives advice, or worse – solutions. Please refrain from D, especially when your friend hasn’t asked for advice.

Choice “E” is an option that provides the opportunity to listen rather than speak. Let your friend tell you what she feels or how much information she wants to share. Let her suggest what she needs.

Help with dinner, the children or the dog may be just what she wants. If you make offers, make them gently, respecting her ability to tell you what’s right for her.

I’m Not Saying It’s Easy

It’s not easy. I know it isn’t because we all have emotional reactions to bad news, and we may be dealing with our own difficult feelings even as we’re listening to a friend’s sad story.

As you think ahead to the next time you have to hear bad news (hopefully, not soon), I hope these pointers will help.

Start with You

What your friend will need most, from the initial announcement through whatever comes next, is your presence. The prospect of possibly losing your friend is not fun, nor is seeing her go through pain.

How does her news affect you? Do you want to shut down? Murmur something and leave? Rush in to help? We all have reactions. Don’t judge yours, just notice, so that what you say isn’t propelled by reactiveness.

Go Slowly

Take time to breathe before you speak. It’s OK to take a moment of silence to let the news sink in. This first conversation is likely to be the launch of a much longer process. Assure your friend that you’ll be with her over time.

Let Your Friend Lead While You Listen

What if you don’t know what to say? Say something heartfelt and simple and prepare for the next step, which is always to listen deeply.

Your simple statement can begin with, “I’m so sorry,” or whatever feels genuine to you. Then listen to where your friend leads you. Maybe she’s up for questions. Maybe she doesn’t want to talk.

Maybe she wants to tell you about the diagnosis. Maybe she doesn’t. Maybe she’s feeling optimistic. Maybe she isn’t. Maybe she has a plan. Maybe not. Let her guide you. Put your agenda on hold.

Shorten the Advice

The last thing your friend needs is you telling her what she should do to heal herself. You may have a hopeful piece of information to share, but before you do, ask whether it would be welcome. Then offer it gently, as something to consider.

Don’t put your friend in the bind of having to explain to you why she might not want to pursue your treatment option. Even if you are a healthcare practitioner, and most of us aren’t, you’ll want to follow her lead about what she’d like to know or hear.

Keep Your Focus on Your Friend, Not the Circumstances

My friend, Patti, who has a late stage cancer, confided to me, “I wish people would stop always asking me about the cancer, instead of asking me about me, and what I’m doing in life besides going to doctors.”

As you go forward with your friend, remember to honor the life that’s still there, even if your friend may be living with the shadow of death upon her.

Take Care of Yourself

After hearing bad news, I may need to have a good cry, or binge-watch Netflix and let my mind go limp for a little while. By recognizing that I’m hurting and providing some comfort to myself, I’ll gain the stamina to keep helping my friend.

Follow the Laughter Trail

Joy can seep into even tough times. Your friend may be able to see the humor in the silly, small spaces that even a hospital may provide. If laughter wants to come, don’t let your own sorrow keep you from sharing it. Laughing together can heal you both.

If you’d like to see some wise counsel from a communications pro who’s been helping people learn how to support their family through a very grave time, check her advice out here.

In the meantime, bless you for caring. Just remember to breathe, be your true self and listen with an open heart. You’ll do great.

What’s the gravest news a friend shared with you recently? What did you do when you heard? Do you think you should have/could have reacted differently? Please share what you’ve found to be helpful in talking with a friend in need.

Let's Have a Conversation!