How Should a Friend Respond to Bad News?

Tell a friend bad news and it's not unusual to leave them at a loss for words.

Posted Oct 28, 2013



Long story short, I communicate with a few friends long distance (we have moved quite a bit). We email about all sorts of things, light and more serious, about once a week.

Recently, my husband and I received some bad news. This was something my "friends" knew about, and had asked me to keep them posted on. Yet, when I emailed these four friends separately about the bad news, two responded and two have not.

There has been no "I am sorry" etc. It's been weeks. They are pretty responsible and respond to emails quickly. This is so hurtful. If they had emailed me bad news, I would respond right away. Even just to say, "I am sorry."

Am I being over-sensitive? Am I expecting too much? It just seems so easy for someone to text or email back an acknowledgement of what happened. I just want to know they care!

I don't want to give up these friends. They are really nice people. But it hurts and couldn't take more than 30 seconds to respond. Should I ask them about it? Ask if I somehow offended them in some way?

Signed, Lee


Hi Lee,

Yes, friends should respond to bad news and should do so within a reasonable timeframe. The correct response upon hearing bad news is to express sympathy and see if there is some way you can help or support your friend in crisis—whether the bad news pertains to sickness, divorce, loss of employment, or death.

Unfortunately, bad news makes many people feel uncomfortable. They may identify so closely with a friend’s situation that they worry they “will be next,” or they may feel like they don’t know what to say, opting to say nothing rather than saying something wrong.

Although your friends live out-of-state, it is usually best to express bad news in person or by phone rather than by email or text. This gives the recipient of the news ample opportunity to listen and to clarify if they don’t understand. Also with emails (especially if they go out to a group), you can never be sure if someone received it, read it, or fully understood its importance.

If you are coping with a crisis, you are probably feeling sensitive and vulnerable to slights right now. For that reason, I wouldn’t dismiss these friendships over this issue. You need the support of your friends more than ever. If you care about these two friendships, reach out and call each of them and find out if they have time to hear your story without addressing the matter of the unanswered emails directly.

Hope this helps.

Best, Irene

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About the Author

Irene S. Levine, Ph.D.

Irene S. Levine, Ph.D., is a psychologist and professor of psychiatry at the NYU School of Medicine. Her latest book is Best Friends Forever: Surviving a Breakup With Your Best Friend.

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