Dear Miss Manners: I was having a pleasant conversation with several close friends, one of whom is a widow whose husband had recently been killed in an automobile accident, as everyone in the group knew. Another couple whom none of us had seen in several months came up to us and after the usual joyous cries of "How are you?" and "Gee, we haven't seen you in so long!" asked where the widow's husband was.

A talkative person in our group said - without a change of conversational tone - "Oh, he was killed in a car wreck very recently."The couple replied with laughter, "Oh, come on, where is he really?"

At this response, the widow broke down and began crying as the seriousness of the situation was realized and assurances were made to the couple.

I really felt bad for the widow and thought there should have been a more graceful and diplomatic way of bringing our unknowing friends up to date. Even though we were all close friends, should we have just kept silent and allowed the widow to speak on her own behalf to announce the sad news? Just what is the proper way to announce this and other unknown personal situations (i.e., divorce, separation, etc.)?

Gentle Reader: Miss Manners nearly broke into tears herself at this unnecessary and unintended cruelty. And not just for the widow.

That lady felt it worst, but the embarrassment of the people who were trapped into thinking the reply a joke should not be discounted, nor that of the friends - not only the chief blunderer, but everyone present - who appeared to treat the death of a friend as a casual event.

To avoid this, etiquette has a formula for announcing bad news. You had all better learn it, because improvisation does not work - as everyone in this situation found out the hard way.

Three elements are required to provide time for the emotions to adjust:

First, a warning to alert the newcomers not to persist in their inquiries: "I'm afraid you don't know what's happened - this is going to come as a terrible shock."

Second, a general statement to set the new tone in the conversation: "There has been a ghastly tragedy."

And finally, the news, conveyed in at least two stages to avoid both abruptness and indifference: "He was in a horrible accident." Only after pausing to allow them to adjust their expressions and ask what happened, can the sad news be told.