When a loved one dies, you may be left with the task of breaking the news to other people. What you say in that moment is likely to stay with them for a long time, so consider carefully how you will deliver the news. This is crucial, regardless of whether you’re speaking with a close relative, a friend, a carer, their manager at work, or casual acquaintances. You can’t anticipate the sense of loss they will feel, or how attached they were to your loved one.

How to tell someone a loved one has died

Where should I tell them?

It’s usually best to tell them in person, when you’re both sitting down. For some people, it will make more sense to tell them over the phone. Family living overseas and anyone who doesn’t live locally will need to be informed. It’s always better to call than to text or email. If you have a number of these calls to make, decide a plan of action. Maybe get the hardest conversations out of the way first, as these phone calls will be most draining.

When telling someone in person, try to avoid any potential interruptions while you’re breaking the news – put your phone on silent, turn off the TV or radio, and find a moment away from other people. Telling them in a safe and confidential space gives them the freedom to react to the news without feeling self-conscious.  

What should I say?

It’s impossible to prepare anyone for the news of a loved one’s death. The only thing you can do is to take your time and communicate as best you can.

Use plain and simple language. Start by saying the person died, as this leaves no room for doubt. The person may already have noticed your tone and serious nature, or that something is ‘off’ with you, so may be anticipating bad news. Even so, under such terrible circumstances people are often unable to take in more than just one or two pieces of information, so you may need to repeat yourself or clarify certain details.

In conversation, there are a few things to avoid:

  • Don’t use euphemisms, such as, ‘they passed on’ or, ‘they’re in a better place now’. This can confuse things. Telling the truth, as hard as it may be, is essential. This is especially true when talking to children about death, as they can take some phrases literally.
  • Don’t make promises you can’t keep to make them feel better in the moment. It will ultimately damage the trust between the two of you.
  • Don’t skirt around the issue or bring in unrelated matters.

It may make you uncomfortable to talk about death, but it’s important you confront the issue. Don’t postpone telling them, even if it makes you uneasy talking in such a direct manner, or even if they seem to be in a good mood and you don’t want to spoil it. There’s never going to be an ideal time.

What should I do?

The most important thing is to set some time aside so you can be there for them. Respond to their cues – they may want some time alone, to process everything, or they might really appreciate a hug at that moment in time. Don’t swamp them, or tell them how they are feeling, just wait for their response and encourage them to express their feelings.

Afterwards, the conversation may be playing on your mind. It’s easy to feel distressed at having to tell someone a mutual loved one has died. If this is the case, seek support by talking to a friend or by calling a grief helpline.
One of your greatest worries may be that telling them will stir up your own emotions, and you won’t be able to hold it together. You need to put less pressure on yourself – the unimaginable has happened, and if you get upset that’s okay. You may want to ask a partner or friend to be there to support you, or elect another family member to be in charge of the task of telling people.

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