How to Give Someone Bad News

How to Give Someone Bad News
Laura Reguera

Written and verified by the psychologist Laura Reguera.

Last update: 21 December, 2022

It seems like bad news is more and more common every day. At times, it appears so suddenly and, at others, we felt certain it was going to happen sooner or later. One example of this is the loss of a loved one who has been suffering from a serious illness. Although it may hurt, in this situation it seems like its “easier” to tell somebody else about the passing.

But, in other situations, the death of a loved one is completely unexpected and you simply have no idea how to tell other people about it. An accident, an assault, or a natural disaster are examples of situations in which, in a split second, your whole world crumbles. In a moment, a very important person passes away.

Although no one wants to live through this kind of experience, the truth is that, unfortunately, this is simply the way life works. The issue is how you face these situations and knowing how to tell others what happened. Keep reading to learn some tips on how to deliver this bad news.

“History is nothing but an infinite catastrophe which we try to come out of as best as possible.”
-Italo Calvino-

What do you feel when you have to give others bad news?

Giving bad news is a very complicated task. Besides having to go through a very tough time, we truly end up feeling awful. Not only due to our own feelings for the person that has passed, but also because we’re worried about the people that we’re about to share the bad news with.

We’re afraid of hurting them. Despite trying to tell them the news in the best way possible, it still worries us. Plus, you never know how they are going to react. They may blame us for what happened or treat us badly. It all depends on each individual’s ability to cope. As the messenger, we shouldn’t take reactions personally.

“How unfair, how damned, how wicked is death that does not kill us but the people we love.”
-Carlos Fuentes-

Girl is sobbing my herself.

On the other hand, oftentimes in these situations, we don’t have a lot of information. And it’s normal for the loved ones of the person that has passed to have an endless number of questions to ask you. That’s why we become scared of not knowing what to say. But the truth is that we’re human and don’t always have the answers to all of their questions. Much less when unexpected tragedies occur.

Steps to follow before giving bad news

One way of managing these negative emotions that may arise, as well as trying to reduce those of the listeners as much as possible, is to prepare yourself to give the bad news before trying to do so. The first step is to try to gather as much information as possible about what happened. This way you’ll be able to answer the possible questions they may have.

You also must know who you’re going to tell about what happened. It’s not the same to prepare a message for the children of the deceased as for parents, friends, or spouses. Although it may not seem important, this way you’ll be more capable of stepping into their shoes. You’ll be able to better adapt your language to the conditions of each person you have to face.

Next, you must look for an appropriate place to share what has happened. It might seem obvious, but it’s worth noting that this place must be as private as possible. Lastly, it’s extremely important that you mentally prepare what you’re going to say and how you’re going to say it. This way, you’ll avoid saying something inappropriate that will increase the other person’s pain.

“After all, death is a symbol that there was life.”
-Mario Benedetti-

What must you keep in mind when giving bad news?

Once you have settled everything else, it’s the moment of truth. What you say won’t make the deceased person come back, but you can minimize the other person’s pain as much as possible. In order to do so, the information you give must be very clear, and you must be sure that it is true. If not, you could confuse your listener and generate even more negative emotions.

Girl comforting a crying friend.

Along with this line of thought, you should tell them about what happened gradually. For example: “There was a car crash, and your husband suffered some very serious injuries. The ambulance that got to the scene tried to revive him, but they weren’t successful. I’m sorry to have to tell you that Peter is dead.”

You must say the name of the person that died, as well as use expressions that directly refer to death so that they will be clear about what happened. If the person has any questions, they must feel that they can interrupt you and ask them. They must feel that you empathize with them and that you’re trying to give them support during such a difficult time…

As you can see, giving bad news is not simple or comfortable. It’s not something anyone wants to do. Yet it’s important to know how to do so in order to make others understand what has occurred. You need to be very delicate, have a lot of confidence, and, above all, transmit empathy in order to withstand the suffering of the person receiving the news.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.