How to soften the blow when delivering bad news

Each month, Paul and Carol Mott of and hosts of a morning radio show invite me on as their resident Psychologist to dispense advice to their listeners. However, a couple of weeks ago, Carol wrote looking for advice themselves. She shared that she and Paul were taking care of their grand dog while their daughter and her boyfriend were away on a cruise. The day before the couple were due to return from their trip, the little dog, who was adored by all, deviated from her regular route as they made their way from the barn where their horses are housed. Surprised not to find her waiting for them by the door to their home, as she usually did, they called her name and began searching. When they heard the screech of tires, their hearts leapt into their throats as they realized that the unthinkable had taken place.

Whether you’re an animal lover or not, you can imagine the devastation that they felt. Not only at their loss of the beloved pet who had spent many a time being cared for by them, but also at the heavy responsibility and guilt of this happening in their care and the sheer enormity of having to share this shocking news with their daughter and her boyfriend. To complicate matters further, Carol was thinking that her daughter might have become engaged on this trip and was eager to share the exciting news with them. They were sickened at the thought of robbing any joy away from their announcement.

I reassured her that they had made the right decision not to share the news with their daughter and her boyfriend while they were gone. Helping them figure out how to share the news was much less straightforward. Ultimately, I said that there was really nothing they could do to avoid the shock and anguish the couple would feel but that I could offer some ideas on how to present the news in a comforting manner.

When the couple arrived at their house, Carol’s suspicions were confirmed when she saw her daughter hiding her left hand in the pocket of her jacket. A few seconds later, when she presented the ring on her finger, there was much congratulating and hugging. It was Paul’s hug – just a little stronger and longer than usual – that led to their daughter asking “what’s wrong dad?” That’s when Paul and Carol delivered the news they had been dreading sharing. I suggested that rather than leading up to what had happened, and thereby creating even more anxiety as the couple waited for what they suspected was bad news, that they share it straightforwardly and without too much detail – something like (while holding their daughter’s hands) “I’m so sorry sweetie, Harley ran into the road and was killed.” At first, the words were difficult for the couple to process. Shock is a normal reaction when awful news is given. Slowly, as they talked further, Carol and Paul were able to answer their questions in a gentle manner and reassured them that their beloved dog had not suffered at the end.

I reflected on this story about delivering shocking news as I recalled the times that I have been with beloved family members when they too have received shocking news from medical professionals and began wondering how those doctors might deliver the same news to his or her family member. Would they take the person’s hand in theirs as they softened the news with care and empathy? Would they choose their words more carefully than what I have heard? Most recently, someone close to me was told that the tumours that the doctor saw looked “nasty” and “serious.” This was even before a proper biopsy had taken place. And even then, does a patient really need adjectives to describe tumours? – the mere mention of which are frightening enough.

Hearing shocking news can be mind numbing but the way in which it is presented can make a huge difference and should not be underestimated or taken lightly.