On Thursday morning, I awoke to the news of a 28-year-old gunman who had killed 13 people including himself at the Borderline Bar and Grill in Thousand Oaks, California. As is often the case, I was responsible for delivering the news to my girlfriend who usually wakes up after me. The same thing happened last month when a mass shooting occurred at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. It was also the case earlier this year when a gunman opened fire at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, killing 17 students and staff members.
I guess you could say I’ve involuntarily become a bad news envoy to my significant other. It’s a responsibility I’ve come to loathe because who wants to derail their loved one’s morning by telling them that a bunch of innocent people have just been murdered — again.
I know what you mean. I’m also the guy who often has to deliver the latest awful news event to my partner. But is there such a thing as a “good” way to do it?
According to Amy Olshever, a grief counselor and psychotherapist, there’s no way to deliver shit news that’s not going to, in some way, derail the other person’s day. “But from a professional standpoint, if you have concern about the impact the news might have on that person, think about the things that are going to help them cope with the news once you tell them,” she explains. “Especially if you’re concerned that the person is going to have a seriously adverse reaction.”
I get that. But what do I say exactly, and how do I say it?
Olshever suggests that before you start delivering the bad news, you ask the person if they want coffee or whatever it is they like to start their morning with. “If someone is going to be triggered and who maybe has a mental health professional, remind them they can call their therapist, group or sponsor,” she says.
Okay, I get that, too. But again, what specific tone and language should I use?
You shouldn’t say anything, it turns out, until you’ve figured out how the news is affecting you first. In other words, you need to pull yourself together before you can ever hope to help someone else. According to Life Hack, “It’s never good to give someone bad news while you’re upset. Try calming yourself down first. If you start giving people bad news while you’re emotional, you may forget to include all of the details. It can make the news seem worse to him or her, and you might make him or her uncomfortable. Make sure you’re calm and composed beforehand. Take a few deep breaths and emotionally prepare yourself for what you’re about to do.”
Olshever agrees. “Are you freaked out? Do you need to express yourself?” she says you should ask yourself. “Once you understand how you’re feeling, deliver the news as evenly as possible without minimizing what happened.”
Vivian Shirvani, an infectious disease doctor at Cedars Sinai, tells me that in her experience — though she admits that her situation isn’t the same as a first responder since she has some rapport with the family prior to engaging in the delivery of catastrophic news — the best method is to be honest. “Empathy, patience, eye contact and very brief comments,” she says. “Start by saying I’m very sorry…”
Another approach Olshever suggests is to have a conversation at a much earlier, less emotional date so that you can set up a plan for how your partner wants you to tell them something bad has happened. “This is a conversation to have pre-tragedy,” says Olshever. “Ask them if they need to stay in bed or take the day off work, or if they want you to tell them before or after they have their breakfast.”
That sounds good but what about my kids? Does the same approach apply to them?
An article based on the same topic in The Loop suggests writing down what you need to say first. “This will help you formulate the most direct way to say what you need to,” it reports. “You’ll also see, when you write it down, what unnecessary ‘stuff’ you are adding into the mix. Kids don’t need to know every searing detail, but they do need to know the basics so they can then ask you questions.”
Olshever sees it the same way and tells me that the information you give your child depends on your child and their ability to hear and process said information. “From a developmental perspective depending on your kid’s age, they’re going to have different ways of understanding things,” she says. Which is why for younger kids, she suggests, telling the truth but not too much of the truth. “This is true of kids of all ages, but if you don’t tell them enough they will imagine much worse than you can think of,” says Olshever. “The best approach is to give a little information and ask them if they have questions.”
I guess more to the point, how can I make sure my kid feels safe at school after I’ve told them about yet another school shooting?
“I’d ask them where they feel safe and reinforce that,” says Olshever. “It can also help to give them tips on ways they might feel more safe.” One example she says is helping your son or daughter take more notice of the people around them. And while she’s aware that most schools are talking about these sort of situations more regularly and helping students navigate what happens when tragedy occurs, her most important piece of advice to anyone who’s feeling scared based on what’s currently happening in the world is to temper all of the bad news by making the best of what you have now. “One thing I’ve learned is you just don’t know what’s going to happen in the future,” says Olshever. “So the one thing I encourage people to do is live their best life in the moment. Because that’s really the only thing you have control over.”