Coping with bad news is hard for both the person and their friends and family. Paul Little gets some advice.

Is there anything more awkward? You ask someone, "How are you?" and then they go and tell you: "I've just been made redundant/found out my kid's on drugs/been told I have a terminal illness." You don't know what to say. So what do you say? For some people, knowing the answer to that is part of their job description.

If you don't know what to say, just 'fess up, says Sarah McCambridge, health psychologist at the Cancer Society Auckland Northland.

"One of the most important things is to start by just listening," she says. "It's okay to tell people, 'God … gosh, I don't even know what to say'. We advise supporters here at the Cancer Society that being open and honest about what you are feeling can be helpful for connecting with the person who has cancer."

Then, she adds, it's important — and easy — to acknowledge the person's feelings by saying something like, "It sounds like you're going through a difficult time," or "I'm sorry to hear that".


"It is human nature to go into advice-giving," says McCambridge, "trying to make people feel better and focusing on the positive but this can make them feel they can't talk about how difficult it is. Equally unhelpful is immediately going into a story of 'my friend' or 'my uncle' who had cancer."

And even the professionals can be lost for words. Monsignor Bernard Kiely is vicar-general of the diocese of Auckland, based at Good Shepherd church in Balmoral. "I'm journeying with a family at the moment, where one parent is in the final stages of terminal illness," says Kiely. "Walking into their house the other day, I thought: 'What am I going to say?' But just going in, being present, allowing them to talk, having the sensitivity of knowing when to shut up can help."

And people can help their helpers to do the right thing: "I say to people: 'You have to let your friends know what you need. If they start talking at you, for instance, you can say 'I don't want you to say anything'."

Finally, "Don't be afraid of tears. To be able to sit with someone and cry with them or hold them is often all that is needed."

Jodi Tempero runs Mr and Mrs Manners, an etiquette coaching service that was originally aimed at children but now tutors adults as well. She says the right response should depend on how close you are to the person. "It's about being respectful and putting yourself in their shoes," says Tempero. "If you don't know them well, say, 'I'm so sorry to hear that', and leave it at that."

But even when you may not be sure what to say, you should definitely not say it in a text or email when the situation is serious. A card or note in itself sends the message that you care enough to go to some trouble.

John Cowan, is a writer and communicator for The Parenting Place, where people whose kids have problems often come for help. He says timing is important — slowly does it. "A saying I like is 'only run for fire and haemorrhages', which a nurse once yelled at me in a hospital. Sometimes you need a breather and a coffee to talk things through."

Cowan points out that thanks to the internet, people now have access to numerous experts with different ideas for every problem, so there may be less respect for real-life professionals and their qualifications. The greater need may be for "someone who will hang in there and say, 'I'm here for you'."

Don't pretend you do know what to say, he advises, emphasising the need to be sincere.

"I've found myself starting to answer a question and having to admit: 'Normally by this stage I'd know the answer but I don't.' Usually you can assure people there's an answer to this but until we find it, I will be alongside you."

Some problems may not be a matter of life and death or a child's difficulties but of economic survival — such as losing your job.

Paul Tolich is senior national industrial officer with E Tu and has helped numerous people through the shock of redundancy.

"The main thing is you have to have some empathy with people and just say, 'That's a difficult situation'. You've always got to be reassuring but you've got to be absolutely honest and factual. Never give people false hope."

Although not personally involved, Tolich has observed one conspicuous case where telling people what they wanted to hear had serious consequences. "When Pike River happened, the powers that be tried give the impression they might get them out. Hope was being extended when you knew there was a good chance those people had died very quickly."

So, according to this cross-section of professional listeners, the rules seem to be simple and consistent: shut up and listen; be genuine in your response; don't try to fix things; and don't offer false hope.

Micheal Hanly, 30, graphic designer

Micheal Hanly. Photo / Getty Images
Micheal Hanly. Photo / Getty Images

Last October, Micheal Hanly discovered he had Huntington's disease. "It's an untreatable, genetic neurodegenerative, brain disease," says Hanly. "The physical and mental effects are devastating."

And the emotional effects. His father had been diagnosed the year before and his grandfather, the artist Pat Hanly, died of the disease in 2004.

"I couldn't tell anyone when I got the results. I had been hoping I could ring my parents and tell them it was okay, and it didn't work out like that. It was so painful I had to get the Huntington's nurse to call."

He has a strong circle of close friends, some of whom, it seems, did know what to say.

"One just said, 'I'm so sorry. I keep trying to think of useful things to say to you but all I can say is you have a lot of people who love you and you'll never be alone.'"

Another called from overseas, "but I couldn't pick up. He left a message that said, 'I'm sorry to hear the news. My heart goes out to you … If you want a sounding board or a travel buddy or an adventure buddy or someone to talk to, I'm here for you'."

Then there were the other people, apparently empathy-free individuals, who weren't so pitch-perfect. "One person said: 'Don't let it change who you are'. I thought, 'I don't think you've understood what's happening.'"

One of the most difficult things to hear about was how strong he was, because it put it pressure on him to maintain a facade of strength. "I didn't have any choice about that. I did it for practical reasons."

But the worst was probably the friend who "asked me if I'd considered videoing myself daily to keep a record of my descent into dementia and locked-in syndrome for the benefit of the scientific community".

Older people liked to say "what doesn't kill you makes you stronger", which is not even slightly relevant in the case of Huntington's.

But, even if other people say the wrong thing, Hanly has found speaking out better than the alternative. And he has some advice for people who don't know what to say: "Please don't dish out advice unless you have a better understanding of the situation. If you know someone has bad news, do some research before you see them, so you know a bit about it and you're prepared when you do see them."

Tracee Nelley, 47, truck driver

Tracee Nelley is the president of Agender, a group supporting transgender people. She has partially transitioned and lives with her wife. They have seven children.

"I'm happy for people to ask me about it," says Nelley. "If I was uncomfortable with that I couldn't admit who I am. And if I can't admit it I'm not being truthful to myself. I haven't told a lot of people, but a couple of workmates asked me and I told them. I've copped some flak at work and other people have just snubbed me."

Nelley is clear that she is bi-gendered (both genders) and not a just cross-dresser. She's found there have been cases where people did know the right thing to say — almost.

"They've said, 'Okay, that's fine. I don't have an issue with that', but then they'll add, 'as long as you don't push it on me'. But it's not a cold — you can't catch it. It's a fact of nature."

Not all comments are even that empathetic.

"What's hurtful is when you're portraying yourself as female and get referred to as 'Mr' or 'sir' or 'he'. We call it misgendering and it can be insulting and hurtful."

In general, Nelley says the people who are likelier to ask are more likely to be positive.

"The ones who want to ridicule you don't come forward."

Kelly & Simon Kingi (35 & 34, technical support and preschool teacher)

Kelly and Simon Kingi with baby Ariana.
Kelly and Simon Kingi with baby Ariana.

Kelly and Simon Kingi spent two years trying —and failing — to conceive, had infertility treatment that failed and was followed by four unsuccessful pregnancies: three miscarried early and one was ectopic.

Ariana Kingi was born in June last year (via emergency Caesarean) even though in the early stages her parents had been told the pregnancy was not viable.

Throughout this process friends and family were usually aware of what the couple were going through. People tried to say the right thing and frequently failed.

"It started as soon as we were married," says Kelly. "Everyone asking, 'When are you going to have kids?'

When conception became problematic, the cheer-up messages were unhelpful. "The worst thing was, 'Just relax and it will happen,' Then, when we miscarried: 'It just wasn't meant to be', or 'At least now you know you can get pregnant'. I hated that. One friend used to send flowers every time — that was nice. It meant they were thinking of you but they weren't trying to fix it."

It's fair to say Kelly is the more expressive half of the couple and Simon is less of a sharer.

But once when he was on a boys' fishing trip one of his mates got drunk enough to tell Simon he'd heard about the miscarriage and a couple of the group spoke up to reveal they had had the same experience.

"I'm not really one to talk to them about it," says Simon. "But it was really short. 'That sucks. That happened to us too'. That's all you need really. 'That sucks' is enough for me."

And when Ariana was conceived, the faux pas kept coming. "We had been on holiday in Samoa and everyone said, 'We knew that would happen.' But we'd been on lots of holidays before and it hadn't happened."

More info

The Cancer Society Auckland Northland has a free psychology service for people with cancer and their friends and family.

For those dealing with transitioning: