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How to tell someone about a death in the family

If a loved one dies, it may fall to you to tell someone about the death. Nobody likes breaking bad news so you should take a little time to prepare yourself. It can be helpful to think about and rehearse what you are going to say. Also, don't forget to plan what you are going to do afterwards. For example, consider how long you can stay with the person, and whether they are likely to require extra support. Read on for more help with how to tell someone about a death in the family.


Where should I tell them?

Ideally, the news of a death should be delivered face-to-face, when you are both sitting down. This is especially the case if the person you are breaking the news to had a close relationship with the person who has died.

If this isn’t possible and you will be speaking over the phone, give yourself plenty of time to deliver the news. Try to choose a time of day when you’re both unlikely to be interrupted. Keep in mind things like whether they will have anyone with them to support them after you end the phone call. This is particularly important if you are telling an elderly or vulnerable person.

Avoid distractions and interruptions where possible. For example, put your mobile phone on silent, and turn off radios and televisions.


What should I say?

One of the most important aspects is knowing what to say when a family member dies. What you will say will depend on your relationship with the person you are telling along with their relationship with the deceased. Regardless of who it is you should talk slowly, using plain, simple language. Be clear about what has happened and avoid euphemisms and excessive detail; people who are hearing bad news rarely take in all of the details at once. Be prepared to repeat yourself as the person receiving the news may well be in shock and not able to register what you are telling them. Make sure that they have understood what you have said before you end the conversation.

It may be wise to leave discussions about the funeral for a later conversation.


What should I do?

Regardless of their relationship with the deceased, you can’t anticipate the sense of loss they will feel. Even when a death is “expected”, the final news is generally still received as a shock. As such, be prepared for reactions you may not have expected; disbelief, anger, silence, even laughter or other responses which may seem unusual. We all respond in different and sometimes unexpected ways when we are given difficult news. Try to be non-judgemental and patient with the person you are speaking to.


Extra support

It can be difficult to know how to be supportive to others when someone dies. Firstly, be aware that everyone is different. Some people may feel they need immediate support, perhaps physical comfort in the form of a hug in the aftermath of such sad news. Others will prefer to be left alone. If they’d like company and you’re not able to stay, or if you’re delivering the news by phone, check if there is someone close by who can stay with the person in their time of need.

Make sure that you have your own support in place. When you are the person breaking the news, it’s quite possible that you will also be affected by it; it is never easy to see or hear someone distressed as a direct result of something we have told them.

You may find yourself re-visiting the conversation in your head and wondering if you could have broken the news differently or made it easier for them in some way. It’s perfectly normal for you to get upset whilst sharing the news. The important thing to remember is that you did what felt right at that time. If you find yourself dwelling on it and becoming very distressed, try to find someone to talk to about this or call our 24 hour bereavement helpline.

You may have a long list of people to break the sad news to. Try not to rush as making a number of phone calls at once will be tiring. You should share the calls with another family member or close family friend if possible.


After reading our advice, we hope you're feeling more at ease with delivering the news. For more guidance on how to tell someone about a death in the family, Simplicity offers grief help and support through the National Bereavement Service's (NBS) webchat. It is a free online service which connects you to a trained advisor.

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