How to avoid making bad news even worse…

I can still vividly recall the words of Ty’s neurologist when he pulled up the images from the MRI scan.

“This looks like the brain of an 80 year old man with Alzheimers!


I sat there in disbelief that he said this out loud, in front of both of us sitting there, while still gazing at the image on his computer, like we weren’t even there.

That was one of many transactional experiences we had while navigating through our incredibly complex health care system, over 18 months and 27 different specialists before his final destination in long term care.

It came flooding back to me as I listened to this podcast of Alan Alda’s where he interviews Dr. Jillian Horton, a Canadian doctor and author of “We Are All Perfectly Fine: A Memoir of Love, Medicine and Healing.”

In this beautiful and poignant memoir she shares how her calling to medicine was shaped by her sister’s illness and these indelible words from their neurologist.

“Can’t you get it through your heads there’s no brain left. This child has no brain left.”


I’m sure you can imagine the anger and sheer outrage one would feel with this cold and callous comment, particularly when kindness and compassion are what’s so badly needed in these traumatic turning points.
It was interesting to hear them reflect on her sister’s doctor’s comment in this podcast interview, as they wonder if it came from the doctor’s impatience and desire for the family to adjust to ‘the reality’ of their circumstances.

Both of our neurologists’ clinical observations were valid, but it didn’t make them useful.

Both created an imperishable memory for us, yet for them perhaps, was a throw away line said in exasperation.

Words matter. How bad news gets shared matters.

It got me thinking about how often you likely need to share bad news with your residents’ families.

It’s probably hard being the one that has to tell a family member their loved one is deteriorating or dying. After all, it’s hard and unpleasant, and stressful to try and anticipate how the family will react.

I also think you can be a supportive, nurturing guide and confidante when you connect with intent.

What is your intention with this conversation? Think about how you can bring compassion and understanding while meeting the need for them to hear, understand and process what this means for them.

You can’t change the reality of the situation, but you CAN influence how they feel about it, and the role you play in their reality.

This is the gift in offering them a means to process and a path to move forward.

They will likely remember this pivotal moment, and not just the words, but how they’re expressed. They will feel your intention behind your words, and as hard as they may be to digest, you can hold that space with reverence and dignity that can allow the acceptance, adapting and adjustments to happen.


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