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How to tell someone their loved one has died

McKinley Valentine — 2 min read
How to tell someone their loved one has died
Photo by John Cameron / Unsplash

This is not something I've had to do, and it's very scary, so when I read this twitter thread giving best practice, I was relieved. Now I'll be more prepared.

At the start of the conversation, say "I've got some really sad news about [Person] I'm afraid." In their minds they are already working out what it is. They do not really hear the next few lines, or only halfway.

So the next few lines are the story. Tell it chronologically and in spare details. "Your sister was admitted to hospital last night. She was very ill with a high fever. The doctors gave her antibiotics but nothing worked. At 9am today she died."

After you say "<x died>" or "whatever the bad news is", stop. Do not say anything else. If you have more information to give let them ask for it. Respond to what they say next, or remain in complete silence if they are silent. If they start to cry, just say "I'm here".

It is OK for this phonecall to be brief. Tell them how to get in touch with you (if they don't already know). If you're not the person *there*, you're probably not the person they want a long chat with at that moment.

Let them know what will happen next, if you know. Answer all the questions they have, if you know the answers. If there are questions you don't know the answer to, it's a useful thing to say that you'll find out.

If you have a number of these phonecalls to make, my advice is that it's very useful to have someone who cares about you and who didn't know the person at all (ie is not bereaved etc themselves) who you can phone in between each one to tell you you're doing a good job

I would add to all of these that if someone is just bereaved a kind thing to do is offer to make these calls for them.

A few other people added to the thread to emphasise using plain language ("x died" not passed away, etc) so there's no ambiguity (it's such shocking news that it can already be a struggle to believe it when phrased in the plainest of terms) and to check they're in an appropriate place to hear it (i.e. not driving).

Wishing us all grace and strength for when it's our turn to do this (I would like to say, "I hope it doesn't happen" but I'm pretty sure this is part of being a human).

This piece was originally published in The Whippet #50 – subscribe to get the next one in your inbox!

Unsolicited AdviceEQ & Interpersonal


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