Do We Still Say “Are You Sitting Down?”
November 13, 2009 10:08 AM   Subscribe

Hypothetically (but earnestly): How do you deliver really bad news? (Please don’t read/reply to this question if the fact of remembering giving or getting Really Bad News is too upsetting for you today.)

How do you deliver really bad news? This is a question that, although hypothetical and arguably morbid, is likely to have an application in my life sooner or later. I’m talking along the lines of a sudden, unexpected life-threatening incident or accident, possibly resulting in death.

As a hypothetical scenario, say a member of my husband’s immediate family dies unexpectedly while my husband is at work. For expediency, I would want to call him immediately, but for sensitivity, I would want to be there with him. Would it be better to call his boss or a close co-worker that so they could tell him in person? Is it always better to get that news in person?

If it’s okay to tell someone on the phone, how would you phrase something like that? (An idea I had is that I would call and say matter-of-factly, “I have bad news about [person’s name],” which would give him time to orient himself to the type of call this is. I’d give a general detail about the type of issue that happened and then follow-up quickly with the current state of their health. “He was in a very serious car accident about an hour ago and the doctors are not sure if he’s going to make it.”)

(Another note on the context of this question: A few months ago, I received terribly sad news about a friend over the phone. Although it was entirely appropriate for the news to be delivered that way, for several days afterward I kept re-hearing the person’s voice on the phone telling me the news, and it seems like it was a kind of “mini-trauma” for me to get the news that way. Perhaps such a shock is unavoidable—after all, terrible news is terrible news, and is going to leave the hearer changed thereafter.)

I’m apologize if reading and considering my question causes anyone sadness. I’ve hesitated posting this question for months for that reason, but I finally chose to go ahead because I believe that helpful replies could help ease a difficult time for someone, sometime. Thank you in advance for your replies.
posted by dreamphone to Human Relations (38 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
I would personally like news delivered ASAP. The medium isn't really important in my opinion, but I wouldn't recommend operating machinery or driving. I would probably offer a ride or come pick the person up if it's local.
posted by Khazk at 10:14 AM on November 13, 2009

I think it varies by the type of incident. Here's what I'd do in two scenarios:

"X, it's Me. Y was in a bad car accident a few minutes ago. I'm going to the hospital now, and if you'd like to go now I'll pick you up on the way."

"X, it's Me. Y was hit by a car on Route 9 about an hour ago. Y passed away at the hospital. I'm so, so sorry. If you'd like to go home, I'll pick you up from work in a few minutes. Otherwise, I'm going to head over to Y's house and see how [Y's spouse, Y's parents, etc.] are doing. Call me whenever and I'll plan to check in with you around 8 tonight."
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 10:17 AM on November 13, 2009 [5 favorites]

Yeah, the shock really is unavoidable, unfortunately. For me, the best way to hear bad news is to get to the heart of it upfront. Don't draw it out with, "I have bad news. I hate having to tell you this, but... well, it's your relative/friend/whatever. We were afraid of this, and it's happened..." etc. Just get to the point and then soften the blow after. Like ripping a band-aid off.
posted by katillathehun at 10:23 AM on November 13, 2009 [1 favorite]

I think it's best to give the news immediately but then also provide the process of what is going to happen next without even giving the person a lot of options, because the shock of hearing bad news often makes figuring out this process difficult. So for your hypothetical example, I would: Call your husband at work, say immediately (without even waiting to preface it with "Are you alone?" "Are you in a meeting?" - because the dread is going to start to build in him, which is awful, if you do that) "Your [blank] is in serious condition in the hospital. [Blank] was in a car accident. I have ordered you a cab which will be there in 5 minutes and will take you to the hospital. I will meet you there."

Giving and receiving bad news is kind of like going into battle - you need directness and an action plan and then just do it.
posted by meerkatty at 10:23 AM on November 13, 2009

Seconding katilla: the preface, "I have some really bad (or sad) news." Then out with it. There's no way to help it not suck.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 10:26 AM on November 13, 2009

Argh! Sorry, totally misready katilla. Anyway, UNLIKE katilla, I usually start with "I have some really bad/sad news."
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 10:27 AM on November 13, 2009

My sister and I have debated this issue. She never wants to get bad news over email while I always want to get bad news over email. What I don't want is to get an email that says "there's bad news" and then have to break my neck trying to call the person to figure out what it is. In my mind, what I can imagine as the bad news is usually worse than what the bad news really is. The exception to this is sincerely bad news when someone receiving it is in a bad place for it. When my Mom's cancer recurred [when we thought it was gone] she emailed me when I was alone in a hotel room halfway across the world with the subject line "news from home" and I had to handle that news alone. I was coming home in two days. She couldn't wait to tell me, for obvious reasons, and I wish she'd waited. I'm still sort of frustrated when I recall that.

In your example about your husband, if he were me, I would want you to tell me and not my boss and I'd want to hear it when I was at home since I couldn't change the news either way. Similarly, people who call me at the crack of dawn to tell me someone died the night before [because they, again, couldn't wait to pass on the news] sort of wreck my day for news that would be the same if I received it two hours later. So think about the news. If it's bad and something can be done, getting the news across quickly is important. If it's bad and nothing can be done, try to make giving the news appropriate to the person receiving it if you possibly can. Obviously bad news to the person you're giving it to is often bad news to you as well so this can be tricky.

So the moral is bla bla different people want this differently. Here are some examples where people have, to my mind, passed on bad news well.

- When my father was in a car accident and was okay but very late coming home, someone called my mom and said "Your husband is okay BUT he's been in a car accident...." jumping right to the mission-critical part and then filling in details is usually the best
- When my grandfather died after a long illness, my grandmother waited until about breakfast time to call us even though he'd died in the middle of the night.
- When my great aunt died who had been sick my Mom emailed us as soon as she knew because there was a Jewish funeral planned [i.e. in the next three days] and we needed to make travel plans STAT.

I think it's easy to blame the messenger even if you don't intend to. I have enough of a rocky relationship with my mom and we're in a situation where she often has good news/bad news to drop on us that I have told her to tell my sister and have my sister let me know what's up and then my Mom and I can talk about it. My sister is good at context [am I travelling? am I awake? am I easier to reach via phone or email or twitter?] and my Mom (whether the news is about her or someone else) just has this anxious need to play hot potato with the news and get it to me as soon as possible even if it means calling in the middle of the night or dropping the news in my lap when I'm far away from anyone to talk to about it. She can be dramatic on the phone about her news or someone else's ["oh did you hear about soandso he's in JAIL!" "oh really, why?" "I don't know, but what do you think??"] and so I try to stay off the phone when this sort of information needs to change hands.
posted by jessamyn at 10:29 AM on November 13, 2009 [3 favorites]

I got a call like this about a month ago from a friend who called to tell me that his partner (also a friend of mine) had died very unexpectedly. I knew from the minute he said "Hi," that something awful had happened. He got the news out quickly and succinctly and relatively calmly. And before I could even ask, he said that he was going to keep calling people to let them know, and he'd let me know if he needed help with that (or anything else).

By contrast, some years ago I got about 10 voicemails from various people letting me know that a friend of ours had died; the first person to leave a voicemail was so upset that I could hardly understand her - she was sobbing so hard she could hardly speak. (The other people who left messages were calmer and more coherent.)

So, yeah, do it the first way, and not the second.
posted by rtha at 10:34 AM on November 13, 2009 [1 favorite]

Personally, I totally wouldn't go for in-person by someone else delivery. There's nobody at work I'd want to be a conduit for this; I'd much prefer my family (husband/parents) over the phone than even my best work buddy in person... though my best work buddy is not so close that we spend enough time outside of work for my husband to know them very well.

I've gotta disagree with meerkatty on this one, though, I'd rather get the warning to get to someplace I can talk. I work in a cube farm and am terribly self-conscious on the phone. Most of my personal conversations are totally stilted because I'm trying to answer them as yes/no questions. "yeah... uh-huh... well, no how about later... yeah... okay... you too... bye". This is true for him calling me when the furnace repair guy's there, or whatever, not just "private stuff" but anything non-business. So for me, just leaping into a serious-situation conversation would totally go badly. Everyone's ideal is different. For me, it would be a text message - "got a minute? give me a call when you can" would tell me to pause what I'm doing, go down the hall to an empty meeting room, and call him back within 5 minutes or so, without a big feeling of panic.

But yes, everybody's different. Know your family.
posted by aimedwander at 10:35 AM on November 13, 2009 [2 favorites]

Leave out anything having to do with you or your feelings; focus on conveying the information to the recipient. Things like 'I hate making this call', 'I feel terrible interrupting you', etc. make it about the caller and not the call-e. I don't like people starting out with 'I have sad/bad/urgent' news. It makes me think really? That's your interpretation, not mine. Tell me what it is and I'll decide for myself. But I'm ornery like that and I can see from above that others need the news to be prefaced by something.

Have some kind of plan for after the news is delivered, such as saying 'If you want to go to the hospital I'll come pick you up', 'I'll call back in half an hour', 'I'll call a cab for you as soon as we hang up'. ASK IF HE/SHE HAS CASH OR CREDIT CARDS ON THEM and make sure it is in their pocket. Don't let the person drive if at all possible; even if you think it will be fine it can be an unnecessary chore.

For any bad news at all, a firm statement of 'I'll call you back at lunch' or 'I'll call you back at 2pm' can be really nice so the recipient can have some time to gather their thoughts.
posted by variella at 10:40 AM on November 13, 2009 [1 favorite]

I would talk to your husband about this, but I don't think telling the boss or coworker first is a good idea. Why should they get news of this sort before your husband and why should they have the burden of breaking the news to him?

As meerkatty said, if you have to give someone really bad news, it's good to have an plan laid out for them so they don't have to think about decisions. Chances are they may be in shock and the simple decision of whether to drive home or take a cab or the subway, etc. and what about travel to XX state, that sort of thing can feel paralyzing. It's also good if you could discuss before something really bad happens these sorts of hypotheticals - do you have 2 cars so it's OK for him to take a cab home from work and leave his car there? Should he have a coworker drive him?

One thing that really upset my sister - hearing about a death on a voicemail. I don't recommend ever doing this.
posted by witchstone at 10:44 AM on November 13, 2009

My experience tells me that being prompt and direct is more important than appearing in person. I grew up in a family environment filled with bitterness and estrangement, so I've had to learn this the hard way.

I remember when my dad died. It was about 1am in the evening. My sister and I were watching Conan O'Brien. It was the day of the "Inappropriate Response Channel." He had been in the hospital for a while with terminal cancer. The hospital called. I picked up, and they asked to speak to our mother. It was very, very obvious from the conversation what had happened. She never needed to tell us. I received the news from overhearing. Everyone ran to separate rooms to digest this. This was not the best example to learn from so far as bad news is concerned, though. It was not direct. There is something important about hearing the news directly, even when it's obvious what has happened.

Later, when I was maybe 17, I remember a close associate who had told me she had had a falling out with a friend. A few years later, that friend died. I heard about this, and knew I should tell this close associate this bad news, but I waited, because I didn't know when or how to share this news. No more than 24 hours later, she called me, angry that I had not told her about this.

I learned then to not wait to tell this news and to not make assumptions about what news people wanted to hear when, let alone assumptions about how much of a falling out they had had and how much that would influence how they would want to hear bad news. I also learned that being prompt is a Good Thing. Waiting for the "right moment" was a huge mistake, and I kick myself for it to this day.

A few years later, I received a phone call from a police officer that my mother had been found dead. I was rather shocked, so I didn't have much time to react to this. However, after a minute of conversation, it became clear that there had been a mistake. My mother had not died - my maternal grandmother had died - and the police officer had called me first by mistake. The police officer was firm, polite, professional, and caring all the way. It's funny, in a way, in retrospect, how he apologized profusely for having screwed up. It was an honest mistake, and it was clear that he felt far worse about it than I did.

Anyway, afterwards he asked me if he should call my mother or if I should. I had learned by then that it would be better for me to call my mom, even though my relationship with my mother is difficult, and so was her relationship with her own mother. I told her directly, without dancing around the topic or prolonging it. The police officer's example was a good one to follow, but I also knew that someone close to her should tell her promptly - not the police officer, or to go back to your example, a boss or a co-worker.

My third story is about how I found out my paternal grandmother had died. I was chatting online with a friend. This friend was interviewing people at his job, and while he was doing so, he googled one of their names. The first result was for this person's father's obituary. Funny, I thought, so I googled my own name and my father's name simultaneously to see what came up. The first result was for my paternal grandmother's obituary. She had died months ago and no one had told my family. I didn't know what to think. Even though my father was, to some extent, estranged from his family - when he died, he had several unopened letters from his mother - I remember having spoken to my paternal grandmother on the phone once or twice. It would have been nice to hear this directly, even though there was a difficult relationship. But, at the same time, I understood completely why this had been the case.

Things got weird later when my sister and I wound up taking money under the will. Telling my uncle that I was sorry for HIS loss was bizarre, but I'm glad that I (sincerely) said it, even though to this day I don't know why my father was estranged from his family, or very much about my uncles at all. I had learned by this point that dealing with bad news isn't about you. You're just a messenger. Even though it's difficult, you should tell people directly about their losses. You should acknowledge things directly.

I have a related story to tie this all together. I grew up in a somewhat difficult household. Estrangement, mental illness, cancer, abuse, confusion. I'm not unique in this respect, and many have had it worse. But - hear this. When I was in college, one Thanksgiving I visited home. I was walking my dog when a neighbor ran into me. He was walking around with his family. His family sort of knew ours, but we had never been that close. He had been drinking. He asked my how I was, and I told him that college was fine, etc. He then paused and told me that his entire family had known about what had been going on in my house. I was shocked. I didn't know that anyone had known. He wanted, sincerely, to know that everything had been OK. He wanted everyone to be OK. This was the first I had ever heard of anyone knowing anything about my house without me directly telling someone. In that moment, I was so happy and so sad. I was happy because this was a kind set of words - he cared. But also so sad - more sad than happy. During the time when things had been most difficult, he had never said anything. No one had said anything. But they knew. Who else knew? I don't know. I had felt so alone through school. I had felt overwhelmed. And to think that a kindly family down the block had known what was going on. That people knew things were amiss, but said and did nothing. Not that they owed a duty to me. But, still.

I learned something then, too.

Sorry for the ramble. To more directly answer your question, however:

(An idea I had is that I would call and say matter-of-factly, “I have bad news about [person’s name],” which would give him time to orient himself to the type of call this is. I’d give a general detail about the type of issue that happened and then follow-up quickly with the current state of their health. “He was in a very serious car accident about an hour ago and the doctors are not sure if he’s going to make it.”)

This is exactly what you should do, in my opinion, but everyone is different.

For expediency, I would want to call him immediately, but for sensitivity, I would want to be there with him. Would it be better to call his boss or a close co-worker that so they could tell him in person? Is it always better to get that news in person?

Maybe it's just me drawing from my own experiences, but I would rather hear sooner than later. The feeling that someone else knew something so important to me but withheld that information - I don't like it. It's one thing if your husband were giving a speech that night or something like that, but still. I think that, if your relationship with your husband is as close as it appears to be from your question, that he will know you are there for him, whether you tell him over the phone or in person.

(Another note on the context of this question: A few months ago, I received terribly sad news about a friend over the phone. Although it was entirely appropriate for the news to be delivered that way, for several days afterward I kept re-hearing the person’s voice on the phone telling me the news, and it seems like it was a kind of “mini-trauma” for me to get the news that way. Perhaps such a shock is unavoidable—after all, terrible news is terrible news, and is going to leave the hearer changed thereafter.)

Terrible news is terrible news. Everyone is different, and maybe you'd rather hear news in person, but I do think that you will get that "mini-trauma" no matter what.
posted by Sticherbeast at 10:46 AM on November 13, 2009 [2 favorites]

Or what 23skiddo said in 1 & 3. For 2, I would want to know ASAP if someone has died. I wouldn't want to think that I'd been doing stupid work stuff for x hours when I could have started planning on how to go be with my family. As you can see, this varies widely from person to person, so it's a good conversation to have now. I guess it's also a question of if you find out at 9am or 5pm.
posted by witchstone at 10:48 AM on November 13, 2009

My girlfriend was in Australia on a three week trip when her best friend died of cancer. I called her there and told her, and it was about as traumatic as you'd expect. I confirmed months later with her that I did the right thing by telling her immediately over the phone rather than wait for her to return--she (and some other friends I asked for advice) said that it would be extra traumatic to know later on that there was a significant period of not knowing it had happened, of being blissfully ignorant. A few delays to perhaps arrange things are understandable, but immediacy is important.
posted by fatbird at 10:50 AM on November 13, 2009

My SO's mom did this last night. Told us she had cancer but WILDLY over exaggerated, started explaining her will, etc. It worked well in her family because they were able to joke about it almost immediately.
posted by blue_beetle at 10:51 AM on November 13, 2009

When my dad died, my mom called and said, "I have some bad news." That seemed like a fine way to put it. She also asked if I was sitting down, which for some reason irritated me. In retrospect I realize some people do faint or whatever, but it seemed like a cliche thing to say and I just wanted to hear what was wrong already. I think it makes more sense to start the conversation with, "Hey, where are you right now?" and nudge them helpfully from there: "You should pull over, I have some bad news," or "Try to get some privacy, I have some bad news."

Waiting to deliver it in person is, I think, in practice actually more heartless than just telling the person immediately -- if someone close to someone has died, they would want to know as soon as possible. Trying to get someone who is there in person to deliver the news would just be way awkward, I think, for both the person who has to deliver it and the person who is hearing it. If I had been at work when my dad died, and my mom tried to get my boss to tell me instead of telling me herself merely because she couldn't be there in person, that would have been awful and weird.
posted by Nattie at 10:56 AM on November 13, 2009 [3 favorites]

When my father died, I had to tell my brother, who had just left after visiting, over the phone, having paged him at the airport. I told my sister in person, in the middle of her college campus, because she saw me before I saw her and realized something was up so I didn't have a chance to get anywhere private. My brother needed to know straight away, to make arrangements to return on the next flight. My sister needed to know straight away because we lived in a small town, so word would have reached her quickly. To be honest, I remember very little about either conversation and I'm sure my siblings don't either. My advice would be to tell those who need to know as quickly as practical, especially if they need to make arrangements. Tell them directly, without a lot of 'are you sitting down?'. They'll probably know from the tone of your voice, or the fact you're calling at 3am, that something is wrong. Obviously, if they're flying a plane or something, wait until they're done to contact them.
posted by IanMorr at 10:58 AM on November 13, 2009

Several years ago I was in the middle of hellish grad school final exams. I tried calling my mom several times during the day and evening and could never reach her, until late the evening of my last exam. My dad had had a heart attack and, while things looked good, she didn't want me worrying -- there was nothing I could do, she knew I was coming home the next day anyway, and I was trying to concentrate on exams. However, our rhythms were such that, by the time I couldn't get a hold of her at home or work over the course of 4-5 hours, I was certain that something was wrong. I had been imagining the worst, so knowing it was "just" a heart attack was something of a relief. It would have been a whole different thing if I'd thought everything was fine and gotten a phone call out of the blue.
More recently, my dad had an accident and had to be taken to the ER. It happened on the evening he normally calls his mother, a fretful type, so I had the job of calling his sisters who live near her to try to get someone to break the news to her. Unfortunately, I called his sister's house and Grandma was there and picked up the phone, so I ended up having to tell her directly and not in person where I could watch her face and gauge her reaction. I ended up seriously minimizing the situation, while laying the groundwork for potential escalation. I then followed up with phone calls and emails to the sisters, giving them more information and letting them know which version of the story I'd given Grandma. Normally I hate lying to someone about bad news, but there was nothing she could do except literally worry herself sick. Very luckily for all of us, his recovery was faster and smoother than anyone could have expected, and I think Grandma is still unaware of exactly how perilous the situation was in. What I said when I talked to her was, "Hi Grandma, this is katemonster. I just wanted to let you know, Dad had a bit of an accident and is being taken to the ER, so he won't be calling you tonight. He fell and hit his head in the driveway. He was conscious the whole time, but they want to take him to the hospital just to check him out and make sure everything's okay." Then answered her questions and promised to keep her up to date when we had news.
My preference would have been for her to receive the news in person from a trusted person (one of her other children). I wouldn't have had some random person tell her, though, and by phone direct from me was the next best after in person -- but I do think it's important to give a bit of warning. In both of my situations, the timing of the call was such that bad news was the likeliest outcome. I think I'd be pretty traumatized to get a call from Mom in the middle of the day, expecting it to be just our normal chat, and have it just start out with "Dad's in the hospital". You can't really soften news like that, but at least letting someone sit down or get to a private place is important. I think your instincts are dead-on with the "I have some bad news about X".
If there is something that can be done or needs to be done, telling someone ASAP, even if by phone, is preferable. If there's nothing that can be done, more consideration can be given to the time, place, and manner. For instance, if you waited an hour, would you be able to go to his workplace and tell him in person?
posted by katemonster at 11:00 AM on November 13, 2009

So many excellent replies, all addressing just what I was pondering. I totally agree with everyone's comments about NOT "tipping off" someone close to my husband at work, and instead be armed with solution-focused details about transportation. Yes. Great points.

Using the info above to parse the "shock" I received a few months ago, I think it was about not getting the "warning" that what was to follow was bad news. After chatting for a few minutes over the phone (I had called her first), my friend told me, "I'm telling you this about Marla [not her real name] because I know you're a friend of hers too. She had her baby last Tuesday...and he died." (On "died," her voice broke and we both burst into tears.) The news was especially tough I think because I didn't expect bad news (who does?), and then I was initially confused by the comment ("Marla had her baby? Isn't it way too early?" But she had the baby! Great!") and then the fact that the baby hadn't survived left me reeling. On the other hand, I definitely have the perspective that in my particular case, it doesn't much matter, because it SO wasn't about me, of course. It just got me thinking about wanting to give bad/sad news in the best possible way.
posted by dreamphone at 11:01 AM on November 13, 2009

I personally like getting the news asap. Caveats, you don't want to get bad news by cell phone when you are in a car or on public transportation, and it is nice not to be totally alone for really bad news, but I would still like to get the news sooner rather than later. The cube farm situation is a bad one, I admit, and I don't have a private office either, but I absolutely loath getting a call telling me to go somewhere else to take it, because what I imagine in my head is often worse than the reality. Like Jessamyn, I would want the call about the death of great aunt Hattie to come the next morning, rather than in the middle of the night, but I want the call about the death of a close relative asap because I will need to start making plans. Maybe a quick text to call asap is the way to go?

I got the news from my sister that my father was in the hospital for emergency surgery by cell phone (he made it, though it was touch and go). We don't live near each other so there was really no other way. Fortunately my husband was there, but I was glad to know right away, and my sister was alone at the hospital waiting, so we could talk to each other till her husband got there. She gave me regular updates, even when things were rocky, but that is what I wanted, since I could not be there.

A work friend's mother died unexpectedly while on vacation. My friend got the news by phone at work from a sibling, I believe, and it was actually kind of good, because there were plenty of people around to take care of her, be with her, drive her home, stay with her, etc., etc., since she took it very hard. I suppose it would have been nicer if the sibling could have come there to tell her, but that was not possible, and for religious reasons things had to move fast for the funeral, so it was better to do thinks quickly, and people at work really pulled together for her and were extremely helpful in getting her through it.

Finally, I had to deliver one of the worst kinds of news you can deliver this March. I had to tell my sister that my mother had died (we were expecting it, but still ... it was incredibly painful). I chose to do it right away, and by cell phone. I knew she was not alone, at least, and I knew she wanted to know right away, so she could come with her husband and daughter to the nursing home to see Mom before the funeral home took her away. I told it as a quick recitation of facts. I had already left her a message that we were on the way to the nursing home because mom was not doing well and to call me, after the nursing home called us and told us to come because she was fading fast. When my sister called me back I told her quickly something along the lines of "The nursing home called us to say that Mom was not doing well. When we got there, we found that Mom had already died."

Afterwards, when we were all calmer, we talked, and I told her I was sorry I had to do it over the phone, and she told me that she indeed wanted the word sooner rather than later, and didn't care about the phone part.
posted by gudrun at 11:02 AM on November 13, 2009

I found out my brother passed away a few years ago from my niece (not his daughter) calling to ask me when I was flying home. I was like "What? Why? What are you talking about?" She assumed I had already heard and was well on my way to making travel plans. Long story short, my mom hesitated to call me because she didn't want to bother me at work or she wasn't done notifying everyone (I have A LOT of siblings) or some other excuse, I never bothered to ask why, but I know that I want to know asap, even if I can't do anything about it. I just don't like the notion of being blissfully ignorant in the world while something tragic is happening or has happened to someone I care about.
posted by SoulOnIce at 11:03 AM on November 13, 2009

Over the past two years, I've had a lot of bad news broken to me over the phone (losing a father, grandfather, uncle, and cat, and very nearly losing the other cat). It was always my mother who called, and she always opened with "Where are you?" Once I let her know I was available to talk, she'd come right out with the news.

When I hear "Where are you?" like that, I don't care where I am, I want to know what happened right away.
posted by Metroid Baby at 11:05 AM on November 13, 2009

Personally, for me, even "I have some bad news" is too much lead-in. Maybe that sounds crazy, but even the second before the news itself is more dread of a complete unknown than I'd like to bear. If I could choose how to be delivered bad news via the phone (kinehora), I would ask that the person identify themself and then promptly spit it out. I'd want comfort after hearing the information, not scary padding beforehand.
posted by threeants at 11:09 AM on November 13, 2009 [2 favorites]

Threeants, that's one of the things that I was thinking too. I think getting this kind of news is kind of like a car crash - the 2 seconds following the "I have bad news" can feel like 2 whole, horrible minutes in which times slows down and your mind starts scrambling to fill in the blanks. Good thoughts.
posted by dreamphone at 11:12 AM on November 13, 2009

I just wanted to pipe in with one extra thought: be sure that you are very clear who the news is about. If someone has two brothers, saying "your brother was in a serious accident," is not enough information, but it's an easy mistake to make when you are upset, stressed, and panicky about having to give the sad news. Same goes with names, if the person you are calling has more than one friend named Mike.
posted by juliplease at 11:20 AM on November 13, 2009 [1 favorite]

If you're interested, there is a substantial medical literature on this very topic. (See this google scholar search, for example). While its a bit dry, and aimed primarily at teaching doctors how to deliver terrible news to patients, many of the strategies may be more generalizable.

If you have trouble accessing the pdfs, MeMail me, and I can get them to you.
posted by googly at 11:22 AM on November 13, 2009 [1 favorite]

Here's what I've heard about how you're supposed to handle it:

Use this phrasing if -- and ONLY if -- Bill is dead:

"I have bad news about Bill. [significant pause] He's dead." Then explain the details.

If Bill is seriously hurt but not dead, start out by saying you have news about Bill but immediately clarify that he's in such-and-such condition (so that the listener isn't left waiting, even for a second, wondering if Bill is dead).

As for your question about when to give the news, I think we'd need to know how soon you'd be able to talk to them in person. If you just have to wait an hour or two before your spouse gets home, then wait. (Unless, of course, their help is urgently needed.) If it's someone in a different city, you might as well call them on the phone right away, right? Having someone's boss relay the message seems weirdly impersonal.
posted by Jaltcoh at 11:30 AM on November 13, 2009

One thing that really upset my sister - hearing about a death on a voicemail. I don't recommend ever doing this.

When my grandmother (my dad's mom) died, I found the news by reading my dad's blog. Later on, I checked my voicemail and got a message from him, which he had left a few hours before posting the blog post. I would have preferred just the voicemail.
posted by Jaltcoh at 11:40 AM on November 13, 2009

As others have said, starting with "Your dad is in stable condition, but he's been in a car accident and is at the hospital" is way better than "Your dad was in a car accident and he's at XYZ hospital, but he's in stable condition." You wouldn't believe how long it takes to listen to 13 more words, when you don't know if they're going to end with "and he died."

Use the same approach when you call that person again, whether or not it's updates about the bad news, for as long as needed. It's been several years since my mom called to report that dad was having a heart attack, and phone calls past 8pm still sometimes make my heart race. With my out-of-state sister I've finally found that I can chirp out a cheerful "Hello!" to ease her mind, but for a long time I had to start every conversation with "Everything's ok!" before I even said hi, because she'd see family on the caller ID and assume the worst.
posted by vytae at 11:56 AM on November 13, 2009 [1 favorite]

I agree with those who have said that you should quickly get to the point. As vytae just said, those 13 words that come before the actual situation can seem like an eternity.
posted by Taken Outtacontext at 1:45 PM on November 13, 2009

Different type of bad news: laying someone off. I was told by an HR-manager friend to tell them within 30 seconds of them sitting down, not to be vague, and to repeat it it in different ways.

Terry, I asked you to come in because the company has decided to cut your position. You're being laid off. Today is your last day. I know this is bad news. Let me describe the severance package.

Not a fun task.
posted by theora55 at 2:36 PM on November 13, 2009 [1 favorite]

When my uncle and my cousin were lost at sea (two separate incidents) the phone calls almost always started with 'have you seen the news' or 'we've got bad news' or 'we need your help'. When my cousin went down my mother called me and asked me if I'd seen the news - I had, but they'd gotten his name wrong so I'd had a rush of relief knowing there was no 'Robert' in the family. Because they were high profile sorts of events the news part was vital but fortunately almost everyone did get the news from family rather than from the news.

But yeah, you want to be quick and you want to be precise. And never ever leave a goddamn voice message where you cannot be understood (I had nine voicemail messages from my sister when her dog died - unfortunately all I could make out was 'dead' and 'died', 'mum and dad' and my brother's name for the first two messages which was not at all helpful). If you can't actually talk, you need to get someone who can.
posted by geek anachronism at 3:20 PM on November 13, 2009

My question has not only been answered, but you've all given me other key aspects to consider (how to navigate voice mail, arranging for transportation, how to prioritize and sequence information, etc.). A sincere thanks to everyone; may you all have very, very few of these calls to deliver and receive in your lifetime.
posted by dreamphone at 5:19 PM on November 13, 2009

When my mother told me my cousin had committed suicide, she did just about everything wrong.

First, she waited FOUR DAYS. FOUR. DAYS. Granted, her intentions were good, I guess. I'd just gotten engaged and graduated from grad school, and she didn't want to mar that.

Second, she told my husband (I'm not sure when during those four days) and told him not to tell me. She invited us over for dinner. He was acting strangely on the way over and wouldn't tell me why, so I was already anxious.

Third, she acted completely normal until we sat down for dinner (OUTSIDE ON THE PATIO). She then launched into the "there's something I have to tell you..." and dragged it out for a few minutes before she actually told me.

Fourth, she had all sorts of speculation on why he might have done this, etc. that I really, really didn't need to hear.

It's been two years and I'm still angry. So, not that you would, but don't do any of the above.
posted by desjardins at 5:47 PM on November 13, 2009

My parents got off the plane after 4 years away and found out that my Dad's brother and his wife had separated and that they were getting a divorce. The family hadn't told us because they "didn't want you to worry". This was at least several months old by the time they found out.

Because I am a Christian, I like to know stuff so I can pray- to my mind there is never "nothing I can do".

When my grandpa was very sick, we got a phone call. Because of the time difference it was a weird time, and after a few minutes it was clear there was something wrong.

On our way home, trying to get to the bedside, the people who were picking us up from the airport (who we were meeting for the first time, parents of a friend) at a midway destination didn't tell us straight away, in public, that my grandpa had died, but waited till we got home and checked the email. (We told the family back home their address.) It was comforting to get the news from family (even over email), in a space that we could go elsewhere (that was private) so we could process without the embarrassment of breaking down in public.
posted by titanium_geek at 8:21 PM on November 13, 2009

When someone dies, never delay telling a person who ought to know if delaying means they might miss the funeral. When a childhood friend of mine died at 16, my father and I were out of town (but only a few hours away). My grandfather decided not to call us because he didn't want to bother us on our trip (and he didn't realize how close I had been with this friend). We missed the funeral (we were actually driving back into town as it was happening), and had to find out about her death from the newspaper.

The shock of losing her was combined with a horrible hurt from not being able to say goodbye at the funeral. My dad and I both were upset for days.

If you have news like that to pass on, it's best to pass on the news and let the other person decide what they're going to do with it.
posted by ocherdraco at 9:36 PM on November 13, 2009

Good book:
posted by teg4rvn at 10:30 AM on November 14, 2009 [1 favorite]

A friend of mine recently found out that his grandmother had died via Twitter. I do NOT recommend that approach.
posted by Jacqueline at 5:14 PM on November 14, 2009 [1 favorite]

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