Thursday, September 06, 2007

When news is bad

I got a call today from a friend. She'd just received some bad news about a workmate who had been diagnosed with a serious illness. She was very upset and not only about the news but about her reaction to it. She'd spent the rest of the day avoiding the person, simply because she didn't know what to say and was scared she'd say the wrong thing.

It's a situation most of us will face at some time or another. When I encountered it a while back, I found myself blurting out my immediate thoughts, no censoring at all. Where is that frontal lobe when you need it? I think I uttered something along the line of 'Oh, hell'. Helpful? Probably not. My friend and I agreed my statement had a great deal of honesty though.

Truthfully, there's no right or wrong response.

My friend wanted to be supportive yet the situation had made her anxious. We talked about how a fear of saying the wrong thing and a subsequent avoidance of the situation could have the direct opposite effect. At this time, where a diagnosis is new, it's not about what you say but about how you listen. Being diagnosed with a serious health condition can elicit a wide range of emotions. Life is disrupted, current and future plans may have to change. Giving someone the opportunity to talk about their fears and concerns and not discounting them with premature reassurance that things will be alright, letting them vent their emotional distress is probably the most useful thing we can do intially.


patientanonymous said...

I think you raise a really good point here. I believe I read somewhere else that this is also a very good thing for physicians to do--listen to their patients when they need to talk--simply listen.

Yes, that can be difficult when they may not have the time but if it is a serious illness, no doubt they will be seeing some kind of specialist and then that physician should be able to make the time?

I don't think any response is inappropriate either. From shock to tears to blurting out exactly what you said or whatever. I haven't had to deal with this type of news but when I've heard bad news, I've started laughing! Now that is a very common response to something shocking...yes it sounds "funny" but it is. It's like this bizarre nervous reaction because you don't know what to do.

Talk about where is your frontal lobe? How about what on earth is your frontal lobe doing? Well, it's just busy trying to crawl deeper into your limbic system! Which seems to be doing flip flops. But that's okay...the limbic system is known for being unpredictable anyway *rolls eyes*

Point is, yes, listen, be supportive and if the other person doesn't know what to say then try to offer up the best you can verbally. And if they're your friend, they'll understand what you are saying or trying to say anyway.

HP said...

Hey PA,
I've had that exact same reaction to bad news..I started laughing and you're's a nervous reaction simply because you don't know what to do with what you're feeling...I mean you generically, not you specifically :) Early morning and I need a coffee or two...

psychgrad said...

Good post HP. I've written from the other perspective -- wondering why people drop off the face of the earth in these serious situations. I truly believe that it starts off as an anxiety about what to say/saying the wrong things and just snowballs into feeling uncomfortable about avoiding the issue for so long.

Even though I know I'll say the wrong things, I try to remind myself to just stay in touch.