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What to do when good people get bad news

This isn’t your chance to be India’s next best consoler. It’s okay to say, ‘I don’t know what to say’, and to just be present

It’s okay to say, ‘I don’t know what to say’, and to just be present.
It’s okay to say, ‘I don’t know what to say’, and to just be present. (Photo: Getty Images)

This week, I retweeted an American woman who had just announced the terrible loss of her mother, aunt and grandmother to corona. I saw two women on my timeline offer their condolences to this stranger. I admired their brief, carefully written messages. At the best of times, it’s hard to say the right thing. But right now, when we are in a vortex of bad news, it’s much, much harder. Here are some go-to moves though.

Just listen

Once, I was crying at my desk during lunch. My new boss came by, saw me crying and exclaimed. She wanted to know what was going on. I gulped and mumbled and continued crying. When she sensed that it was not tragedy, just moderate misery, my boss responded with a move I never forgot. “Shall I get you some gulab jamuns? You should quickly eat three," she said. I was so startled, I laughed and more or less stopped crying. It was exactly the right thing to say. It didn’t minimize my unhappiness or blow it up. It took my misery just seriously enough. Listen carefully to the person who has received bad news and you will know what to do next. Mostly.

Don’t wait for perfection

This isn’t your chance to be India’s next best consoler. It’s okay to say, “I don’t know what to say", and to just be present. It’s okay to just say, “This sounds like such a difficult time for you." It’s okay to send a simple text that says “I am sorry for your loss" rather than try to compose a haiku and realize that three years have gone by.

Don’t be lucky or grateful

A man on a scooter pinched my friend’s ass while she was waiting outside college for a bus. She yelped, jumped and cursed. The girl standing next to her clutched her chest and said, “Oh thank god, it wasn’t me." This was obviously what she felt to the depths of her being but don’t be her. If you are feeling lucky you have medical insurance that covers the whole family or if you are feeling lucky your building has a lift, close your eyes and feel the gratitude privately. Don’t blurt it out to your friend.

Silence is a valid option

As soon as you tell someone to be positive, the only thing the other person becomes positive about is getting rid of you. If everything happens for a reason, please go away. Also, there is no bright side. None at all.

You can pray with her...

...if she wants you to. Now is not the time to bring Godto a non-believer or atheism to a believer.

DON’T do a privilege census NOW

We should all be particularly careful to check our privilege in these devastating times. But now is not the time to remind your friend that someone else has it much worse. For sure, someone else has it much worse. Maybe your friend has a supportive family or doesn’t have to pay rent or has 10,000 followers on Instagram but now isn’t the time to remind her.

Be useful

As my friend Pavithra Sankaran, communication consultant, suggests: “Just be there, fully present and do ordinary practical things. Refill the water jug. Put away washed vessels. Wash them if they are still in the sink." If there is a child, you can offer to keep her distracted. Cook a simple meal, but only if you don’t have to keep asking the unhappy person where the salt is. Don’t be a hero and go to top up your friend’s petrol just when she urgently needs the car. Either ask what the other person needs or pick a low-fuss chore. Even under lockdown you can still help, albeit with some ingenuity.

Don’t make keeping you informed a new chore

Over a decade ago, my friend’s mother committed suicide. His father wrote down a statement about the sequence of events and made a pile of Xerox copies to hand out to everyone who trooped through the house to offer condolences and to find out “what really happened". While he and his son were in the depths of grief, the last thing they wanted to do was satisfy everyone’s curiosity.

You think of someone who is ill. And you send their caretaker a message asking how things are. Remember that the caretaker probably has to do this 20 times a day. If the bad news is of the unfortunate long-term kind, it’s consideratenot to ask every day. It’s kind to let the caretaker know, “Just thinking of you, no need to respond." It’s kind, if you are close friends, to help the caretaker set up a WhatsApp broadcast if he or she wants to.

Don’t tell the other person how strong she is

At one of the worst times in my life, an otherwise kind friend told me in a pondering tone that situations such as mine needed courage. I have never quite forgiven her and still despise the Tamil synonym she used. Your friend who is crumbling on the inside doesn’t need to smile and be a “strong woman". You can tell her that she is doing the best she can. You can listen if she tells you she is crumbling on the inside.


...don’t make it about you.Don’t make it about you. Don’t make it about you.

Cheap Thrills is a fortnightly column about millennials, obsessions and secrets. Nisha Susan is the editor of the webzine The Ladies Finger.

Twitter - @chasingiamb

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