Receiving bad news

Sometimes in life we get bad news. It can be about our health, our family or even our career. Receiving bad news is never something to be taken lightly and it cannot be fixed with simple platitudes about resilience, time or strength. Bad news can come as a massive shock and has to be dealt with before you can move on. Bad news can be survived, it can be gotten through and may even serve as a signal for growth. However, all of this comes later, after the news is received, processed and reacted to.

Some things to keep in mind when you receive bad news:

You get to determine how ‘bad’ the news is.

Every person has their own resources, capabilities, experiences and skills. How we deal with the bad news is entirely a personal construct. Some bad news might not seem so bad to one person, and may seem like the literal ‘end of the world’ for someone else. Only you know the impact it has on you.

There is a difference between your response and your reaction.

Your reaction is the automatic way you initially process and respond to the news. This includes all the thoughts, feelings, anxieties and concerns that you may have. Your response is not your reaction – it is the choice or choices that you make, including how you act to deal with the news. You are never in control of your reaction, but always in control of your response.

Often we are not in the position to ‘respond’ until long after we have reacted. Be aware that it is completely human to react, as complex thoughts and feelings are raised by the news and its potential effect on your life. However, at some point there is real value in switching from reactions to responding – selecting valuable responses rather than simply continuing to react – allowing you to move ahead after the news – and into the new reality.

Only you get to respond and react in your own way.

Platitudes from people might be done with the best of intentions, however they can often apply additional pressure or stress to the person dealing with the news. You are unique and your reaction to the news is going to be specific to you and your circumstance. Trust yourself to do what you need to do to get through this time. You can just say ‘thank you’ (for their positive intention) and choose what information is valuable to you to take from the conversation. Or you can let people e know you are not ready to listen to ‘advice’ at this point in your journey. How you respond to others is also part of your response.

You don’t have to be strong for anyone else.

Vulnerability is important in getting through the receipt of bad news. Unless we allow ourselves to process the news in a realistic and honest way we will delay our ability to shift to acceptance. Being strong for others is often used as a way of displacing feelings and thoughts about the news (avoidance) and delays dealing with the new truth and how we choose to respond to it.

It is a journey.

The grief cycle was developed by Kuebler-Ross, and describes the traditional approach to coming to terms with grief. Bad news often signals the loss of what was before and the establishment of a new reality that now exists. The news is often bad because of the loss we will believe we will suffer. The steps of the cycle are denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Following bad news you will likely pass through each of these stages – although you will do so at your own speed and in your own way. Pay attention to what you are experiencing and you might notice how you move through the different stages on your way to your new reality.

You are only responsible for the bits you control.

Too often people want or need to apply blame for things that have happened to themselves or others. However, this discounts the fact that we have no control over the circumstances we find ourselves in – good things happen to bad people just as bad things happen to good people – and everything in between. Understand that often things happen to us outside of our control and looking for someone to blame can stop you putting things in a proper context.

Even when we learn that our choices or actions contributed to the new reality, we also have to be kind and gentle to ourselves – and perhaps consider that we did what we did because we were doing the best we could do at the time.

Self compassion is your friend.

Beating yourself up or playing the victim is not helpful in moving beyond the news. As reactions, these will happen, but they do not make for valuable responses going forward.

What next?

After receiving the bad news you will have to come to a point – in your own way and time -that the new reality has to be accepted.

Acceptance is the last stage of the grief cycle and the first stage of setting yourself free to face into the new future. This shift may not come easily, but it will come.

Don’t forget there is a lot of support that you can call on. You have friends, family and professional support services (like lifeline) that can I offer an ear to help you through such times. Make sure you let those around you help you in ways that support you, and kindly decline ‘help’ that doesn’t serve you regardless of how well intentioned it is delivered.

Dealing with bad news and the grief cycle can be challenging. There can be lessons buried in the process of shifting to acceptance, however these only become evident after the fact. Trying to learn as you process the news or as you navigate your initial response to it is not valuable. There is a time and a place for quality learning or reframing your experience in a positive and valuable way, but give yourself time to get there.

If this has raised any issues for you, please reach out directly. I can help you move towards better responses, getting through to acceptance or building better plans for your future with clinical or coaching services. Immediate support is also available from Lifeline (131114).