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Auntie SparkNotes: How Can I Share Bad News Without Making It Weird?

Dear Auntie,

I’m a sophomore in college and things are going pretty well. I have some friends, but none that I’m really close to, since I take a long time to be comfortable around new people. But that’s not the problem. Here comes the bummer part: this summer, about a month ago, my best friend from middle school killed herself. Needless to say, it’s been pretty awful. The problem is, I don’t know how to tell anyone here what happened.

The only people I’ve talked to about it are my parents, our mutual friends who I saw for the first time in years at the funeral, and the counselor I was seeing for unrelated stuff. I don’t think I know anyone at college well enough to tell them something like this. It’s not something that will just come up in conversation and I’d feel bad ruining the lighthearted mood with something like this. But I have to tell someone. Every night I lay in bed and think about it and half of me feels like screaming and crying and being hysterical. I also know that I can’t necessarily trust my own judgement of how close a friendship is. I feel bad just for wanting sympathy and comfort even though, out of all the things I’ve been emotional about as a teenager, this is definitely the most “real”. So…how do I talk about something like this? Is there any way to not make the person I tell extremely uncomfortable?

I’m so sorry for your loss, Sparkler. And to answer your last question first: No, there is no way to ensure that the news of that loss won’t make some people uncomfortable. Not that they definitely will be or won’t be—it’s a highly individual thing—but the point is, their emotional response is not up to you to control. If you tell someone about your friend’s suicide, and that someone gets extremely uncomfy, that is a) their problem, and b) not your fault.

Which is why, if I may, I’d like to gently suggest you not worry about that part of things. You have your own grief to deal with, and that’s plenty; you don’t need to try to handle other people’s feelings for them on top of it.

And when it comes to getting the support you need, that’s one needless obstacle dispensed with. But let’s go ahead and get rid of a couple others, too. For one thing, you don’t need to be super-duper-extra-best-friends with someone to admit that you’re having a hard time, and you don’t have to do a deep dive on the intricacies of your grief to do that. When someone asks how your summer was, just be honest: “One of my close friends committed suicide.” (Or if you’d rather not go into even that much detail: “One of my close friends died very suddenly.”) And before you hesitate for fear of bumming people out, please realize that the “lighthearted mood” of your college friendships is an ephemeral thing; it’s not meant to be preserved at all costs when one of you has just experienced a tragedy. If one of you is going through something awful, then the mood will naturally shift toward giving that person whatever comfort and feedback they need—and while you may be the first among your friends to require that kind of support, you’re not going to be the only one.

Of course, not every college-aged kid knows how to deal with a tragic situation, and not all your friends will be equally sensitive to what you’re going through. You’ll have to start with the basic truth that someone close to you died, see who steps up to comfort you, and then figure out from there which of those people you can really lean on and confide in. But as starting points go, this is a good one: to give yourself the gift of not having to pretend everything is fantastic, and give your friends the opportunity to offer their sympathies. And if you still have dark days ahead as you grieve the loss of your friend, reaching out now can at least give you the comfort of knowing you don’t have to go through them alone.

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