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Gail Rink: Sharing Bad News

Relating your circumstances gives family and friends the opening you need for their love and support

A longtime friend asked if I would write a column about sharing bad news.

Gail Rink

None of us likes to be the barer of unpleasantness. No one likes to have serious health issues. So it is all the more difficult to share news of a recent diagnosis, especially if the diagnosis is a life-threatening illness. While this is no fun, we all realize we cannot keep serious personal information from the people who care about us. We are vulnerable and need the comfort of family and friends.

Prepare yourself first. Embrace the diagnosis. I know this is easier said then done. Undoubtedly, a partner, friend or your adult child was with you when you heard the diagnosis; use that person to practice talking about yourself and your diagnosis. Listen to your words; notice what you are feeling. Recognize what is comfortable and what is uncomfortable for you to speak about. Becoming comfortable with yourself in relation to the diagnosis will help strengthen your confidence in sharing the news and prepare you to receive the love and caring support that will be reflected back to you.

Make a list, written or mental. List the folks you personally want to tell, those you want someone else to tell, and those who will have to wait for the jungle drum to reach them. When you are ready to receive their response, begin to connect. It might be easier for you to talk to a couple of people together. Family. Close friends. Children. Take as much time as you need to finish your list. And after each conversation, rest and recognize how you are feeling. Each “telling” may not become easier; each “telling” has the unpredictable outcome of emotion. Appreciate the love, concern and compassion you are receiving.

When people hear your news they will react with emotion, logic and good intentions. This may take the form of tears, hugs, words of encouragement, offers of help, perhaps even angry outbursts. “This is so unfair.” Again, practice receiving another’s reaction. Do not try to explain yourself. Feel. Experience the genuineness of their emotion. You are loved and cared about. Companionship and emotional support are vital ingredients for the healing journey — in their way, as important as chemotherapy, surgery, medication and radiation.

— Gail Rink, MSW, is executive director of Hospice of Santa Barbara.

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