When you’re dealing with a bad or traumatic life event—e.g., job loss, a major breakup, being diagnosed with a serious illness, family estrangement, or the death of a loved one—things are going to feel pretty awful. And one of the most difficult (but under-discussed) aspects of this is the part where you have to tell other people about what’s been going on.
While it’s worthwhile to be honest about the fact that you're dealing with some shit, there are a lot of reasons why sharing personal bad news is particularly exhausting. You’re stuck re-telling the same painful and/or long story over and over again. If you don’t proactively tell people, it almost always comes up in a context you don’t want it to, or where having an extended conversation about it would really kill the mood. (Like, you’re at a barbecue and someone casually says, “You and Alex should come over some time to watch a movie!” in front of a big group and you have to be like, “Uh, well, we broke up,” and you can’t really explain what happened without making the conversation all about you, and the other person can’t really properly react in that moment, and maybe you don’t want the other people sitting with you to hear the whole story in the first place. Bad all around!)
The more people you have to tell, the more likely it is that someone will make a thoughtless or insensitive comment, or at least ask a nosy question you’d rather not answer. Managing other people’s reactions to your bad news is an additional burden you shouldn’t have to think about when you’re already having a hard time. But even if you know everyone will be kind and supportive, it’s often still tiring and unpleasant. There’s just something about sharing the news with other people that makes everything feel very real, and very bad.
Should you find yourself dreading the prospect of communicating the details of, say, your now ex’s recent arrest for embezzlement to your co-workers, extended friend group, or book club, I highly recommend outsourcing this task to a trusted individual. Because the fact is, you actually aren’t required to personally inform every single one of your coworkers that the person you were hoping to spend your life with was ripping off their employer for the past 10 years, and no you didn’t know about it, and obviously the answer to how you’re doing is “not well, bitch.” Enlisting someone else to share the bad news on your behalf is a small act of self-care. And, given the fact that folks often want to help when you’re going through a difficult time, this is an easy way to take them up on their “let me know if you need anything” offers.
So, who should be your unofficial crisis PR person? Because you’re going to have to tell them before they can tell others, it needs to be someone you know will react to this news with grace and empathy. Beyond that, it’ll ideally be a person who inherently Gets It—that is, someone who has good emotional intelligence, and is fairly competent when it comes to matters of etiquette, good judgment, and discretion. They should also be connected to the people they are sharing the news with (i.e., someone you work with is probably the best choice to pass info along to your co-workers). Someone in a leadership role (like your boss, or the person in your friend group who organizes every get together) often makes the most sense. But if you don’t have someone who fits this exact description, choose the kindest and most thoughtful person you can within the circle and you should be fine.
What to say
After you tell your point person what’s been going on with you, and the two of you have had a chance to discuss it, you could say something like this:
- “So far, I haven’t told [anyone else at work/the rest of our friends/the team] about this, and I was actually hoping I could get your help with that.”
Then share any thoughts you have on exactly how and when you’d like them to communicate this information, like so:
- “Would you mind sending an email to the group today to let them know that we’ve moved my mom to hospice care? I’m finding the act of giving people updates on her health fairly exhausting, and having someone else to help with this would be a huge gift right now.”
- “Would you be up for letting people know the broad details of the situation at some point before we meet on Thursday? They don’t need to know all the messy details—just that the relationship is over, I’m moving out, and I’m pretty distraught about it.”
You can also tell them whether you’re OK with people reaching out to you after they hear the news by saying something like this:
- “It’s totally fine if people want to reach out to me later about it; this isn’t some big secret and I’m not going to have a breakdown if someone gives me a hug… it’s just difficult to keep having to repeat the initial story over and over again, so having you pass along the basic information will help a ton.”
- “You can let them know that I really don’t want to talk about it with anyone at this point, but I do want everyone to know the broad strokes of what happened so they don’t worry or start to think I’m blowing them off.”
If they agree to do this for you, you might also want to say something like, “Will you let me know once you tell them, just so I’m aware?”—basically, you probably don’t want to be left wondering if people know or not, so it’s worth making it clear you’d like that box checked.
If you’re worried that the person will think you’re a weirdo for making this request, don’t be. Most people will not be bothered by this in the slightest, and will likely feel honored that you trusted them enough to turn to them in a moment like this.
What it might sound like if you’re the friend doing the sharing
- “I have some news about Tyler that they asked me to share with all of you. Alex called off their engagement over the weekend, and moved out the next day. Tyler is really distraught, as you might expect, and is taking the rest of the week off. I think Tyler would like some privacy in terms of the specifics of what happened, but you should feel free to reach out directly to let them know you’re thinking of them.”
Ultimately, I like this method for sharing bad news because it tacitly teaches people to employ ring theory; it reminds everyone involved that when a person is suffering, it makes a lot of sense to put layers around them. Communicating bad news in this way helps protect the person at the center of the ring from bad knee-jerk reactions, and gives the people who care about them space to process their own feelings without traumatizing the person further. It’s a tiny gift you can give yourself (or, someday, a friend) to make a terrible time feel a little bit less bad.
Rachel Wilkerson Miller is the author of The Art of Showing Up: How to Be There for Yourself and Your People. Follow her on Twitter.