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How to Deliver News That a Loved One Died: 6 Steps

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When you're the one who has to deliver the news that someone has died, the words you choose will likely have a lasting effect on the recipient. People tend to remember exactly where they were and what they were doing when they've received bad news. It's like remembering other significant events throughout history. You never quite forget the impact.

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Whether you’re a medical professional, chaplain, or friend — telling someone their loved one has died is one of the worst news they’ll likely ever hear. It becomes important to know how to say someone died in a way that shows compassion for the person on the receiving end. This is especially true when the news was unexpected or otherwise comes as a shock.

With carefully chosen words, you may be able to soften the blow. Below are some ways of telling someone that their loved one has died and how you can help a grieving friend or anyone facing such a loss.

Step 1: Show Compassion

When trying to find the right words to say when someone dies, it helps to look back at times when you were the one receiving such news. Whether it was the death of someone you knew, getting fired from a job, or someone breaking up with you — bad news is never easy to digest.

The feelings you’re left with after hearing such news may be that of shock and disbelief, followed by an inability to accept things as being true. You start processing the information in ways that fit the narrative already established in your mind. This is one of those times when the need to show compassion is at its greatest.

As the late poet, Maya Angelou said, "People will forget what you said. People will forget what you did. But people will never forget how you made them feel."

Step 2: Say it in Person

Notifications of death and sympathy messages are best given in person. You never know how the person receiving the news will take it. For example, perhaps they just got laid off from their job or were dealing with a different type of crisis when you share the news.

If someone is already in a weakened state or feeling emotionally vulnerable, they may not be able to withstand getting even more bad news. You may consider asking first what, if anything, they know about the situation before hitting them with all the details. 

When delivering the message, use clear and understandable language avoiding euphemisms so you don’t confuse them or give them false hope. Give enough detail and get to the point. You’ll want to then give them a few moments without saying anything so that the information can sink in. After giving them time to reflect on the news, you may then want to ask if they have any questions. Some things to consider are as follows:

  • Age (elderly or young)
  • Condition of physical health (heart conditions)
  • Any other recent deaths in the immediate family
  • Mental health issues (anxiety, panic, suicidal)

Examples of what to say when someone dies

  • “I’m afraid that I have some very bad news...” 
  • “...was badly injured. Despite all efforts to save…”
  • “Unfortunately, I have some bad news to give you.”
  • “I’m sorry to bring this news to you…”
  • “This is very difficult for me to say…”

Read our full guide on what to say when someone dies for more ideas.

Statements to avoid

  • “We all expected that this would one day happen.”
  • “He should’ve known that driving like that would one day be the end of him.”
  • “I never understood that girl and why she did the things she did.”
  • “She lived a long life and it was her time to go.”
  • “He was in excellent health. It’s a shame they couldn’t do anything for him.”

Step 3: The SPIKES Model

The SPIKES method of relaying bad news to someone is a six-step strategy that aims at delivering news in the most effective way possible taking into consideration the recipient’s age, health condition, mental and emotional state, among other things. 

This model was first made public when it appeared in The Oncologist in 2000. It originated as a method for delivering bad news regarding medical conditions to cancer patients. It has since been adopted as the model to follow for clinicians, first responders, chaplains, and others having a role in relaying bad news to others.

1. Setup: This includes a mental preparation on the part of the person delivering the message prior to going in and delivering the news. You take the time to set up a plan on how you will react and handle a negative response to the delivery of the news. The setup includes the following:

  • Arranging for privacy, such as sealing yourselves off from the public
  • Involving significant others, or having a supportive person present
  • Sitting down, which relaxes the person and indicates that you’re not rushing through the news
  • Making connections, such as maintaining eye contact, touching, hugging or hand-holding
  • Managing time constraints and interruptions, like ensuring you have set aside adequate time to deliver the news. You also want to avoid distractions, so turning your cell phone to silent mode is highly encouraged.

2. Perception: Before you jump in and spill all the details related to the death that you’re there to announce, take a moment to ask what the family already knows regarding their loved one’s death or condition. “Before you tell, ask.”

3. Invitation: As a general rule of thumb, you may want to ask the family first to see how much information they want to receive concerning the death. Are they open to hearing all the details? Or, would they rather wait until a later time to get that information?

4. Giving Knowledge and Information: Warning the family that bad news is coming lessens the shock of receiving such news. You may want to give soft yet direct hints as to what’s happened so that when you get to the point the blow is softened and doesn’t come across as an unsympathetic and blunt announcement. 

5. Empathizing: When you empathize with someone, in this case, it means responding to their emotional reactions when receiving bad news. An empathetic response includes the following four steps:

  • Observing the emotional reaction of the person receiving the news
  • Identifying the emotion experienced 
  • Identifying the reasons for their emotional response (Don’t assume. Ask if you’re unsure as to why they are reacting in such a way.)
  • Allow time for absorption and reflection

6. Summarize: Go over all of the information you have given and ask the recipient to repeat what they’ve understood from what you’ve just told them. This ensures that the information was relayed accurately and that they understand the message. 

Step 4: Obituaries and Death Announcements

Both of these methods are considered to be a bit outdated in today’s world that relies so heavily on the Internet and social media. At the same time, they’re still the most commonly used ways of making death announcements in communities that don’t use social media as their primary means of communication.

Obituaries and death announcements are traditionally printed in local newspapers or in national papers for those persons who’ve died that led prominent or public lives. An obituary is the telling of a person’s life story simply and concisely.

Step 5: Social Media

One of the most common ways of modern communication is through the use of the Internet and social media circles online. This is a quick way to get the word out to as many people as fast as possible.

Social medial announcements have taken over what used to be the fasted way of communication which was the telephone. There are free platforms such as Facebook and Twitter where death announcements can be made or online memorial pages can be set up. 

Step 6: Acknowledging the Loss

When you’re tasked with reporting the news to a close friend that their loved one has died, you carry the additional burden of ensuring that your friend has the proper support to get them through this trying time. When delivering the news to a stranger, on the other hand, you do your job, spare a few moments, and then move on with whatever you were doing. 

Telling a friend is quite different. You should relay the news, acknowledge their loss, and offer kind words until the news has been absorbed. You may want to offer to help them in any way they need, stick around to offer emotional support, and offer a shoulder for them to lean on.  

Delivering the Bad News 

No matter in which capacity you serve when delivering the news of a death, it’s never an easy thing to do. You should take care that you’re emotionally prepared and equipped to deal with how the person will react to receiving such news.

If you feel that you’re not the right person to take on this responsibility, be honest about it, and let others know how you feel. 


Sources

  1. Baile, W.F., Buckman, R., Lenzi, R., Glober, G., Beale, E.A. and Kudelka, A.P. (2000), SPIKES—A Six‐Step Protocol for Delivering Bad News: Application to the Patient with Cancer. The Oncologist, 5: 302-311. doi:10.1634/theoncologist.5-4-302 First published:01 August 2000 doi.org/10.1634/theoncologist.5-4-302