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Get the Bad News Over With

T. Rees Shapiro, an obit desk and Post Mortem contributor, writes:

British novelist Jon Canter had some interesting observations on the London Guardian Web site the other day about "bad news."

He wrote: "The fact is, death - currently, of British soldiers in Afganistan - is the top news story of the day, whatever the day is."

On the obituary desk, this is indeed the case. Canter had some ideas on how to give it. He said when given the duty to personally report some discouraging news about death to our friends, we often feel it is neccessary to dilute the information. As Mary Poppins once said, a "spoonful of sugar will help the medicine go down," but Canter asks to what end does that serve the bearer, or receiver, of sad news?

Everyone knows the story: You tell a friend you want to meet them for coffee, you sit and chit chat about how well Sally is doing on the soccer team, and how Timmy is such a fine pianist, when you interupt them mid-conversation with: "We need to talk, I have some bad news."

According to Canter, this is the wrong way to go about it. First, by taking the scenic conversational route and talking about happy subjects such as children and good things going on in life, the bearer of bad news is only giving the listener a higher point to sink from once they do hear the sad report.

Secondly, Canter said we shouldn't leave the the phrase, "I have some bad news," hanging in the air. Doesn't that only make the listener imagine what catastophic information they are about to hear? (Inevitably: Did you get fired? Do you have cancer?)

Much as we try to do on the obituary desk, here is Canter's suggestion: "Give it to them straight."

Canter: "State the headline, then amplify it: time and cause of death, state of nearest and dearest, funeral arrangements and so on." Then finally, as Canter points out, after delivering the blow people often want to put some last minute icing on it, the spoonful of sugar, to help the bereaved deal, that the death "was quick." That he or she "didn't suffer much."

Tsk, tsk, Canter said. "These homilies aren't news, though. They're speculation. How do you know he didn't suffer much? Did he tell you? No. Let bad news be bad news. There'll be time, later, when the news has sunk in, for a comforting little joke about The Weather. "

By Adam Bernstein  |  November 17, 2009; 12:40 PM ET
Categories:  Grief  
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Comments

I'd also add that when you try to sugar-coat bad news by preceding or following it with trivial news, it makes you look heartless. When you spend ten minutes telling a funny story only to get around to the fact that Granny died, it doesn't sound like you cared that much about Granny in the first place. Leave the jokes for another day, or another week.

Stick to the facts, don't be treacly or evasive, and don't be afraid to use that normal healthy word "died". "Died" isn't obscene, irreligious, disrespectful, or harsh: it's polite and clear, and avoids misunderstandings. Leave "passed on", "passed away", and (ugh) "crossed over" to sympathy card writers.

Posted by: Blurgle | November 17, 2009 1:30 PM | Report abuse

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