After a loved one dies, your family might leave you in charge of breaking the news to relatives and friends. The words you choose are likely to stay with the recipient for a long time.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- How to Tell Someone Their Loved One Died In-Person
- How to Tell Someone Their Loved One Died on the Phone
Choosing the right words to say becomes essential at that crucial moment. It sounds intense, but it is important to prepare yourself for the sense of loss and immediate emotional responses that can follow. It can be hard to know what to expect when sharing the news of a loved one’s death.
When you don’t know how to say someone has died, it is crucial to plan what you’ll say. Preparing the exact words to say will help you deliver the news even if the words don’t come out exactly as you intended to say them.
How to Tell Someone Their Loved One Died In-Person
There’s never a right way to tell someone that their loved one has died. The news can be heart-breaking and traumatic to receive for almost anyone.
It’s impossible to predict how someone will react to getting this type of information, but you can control how, where, and when to tell them.
1. Take them to a safe and private area
Whenever you deliver such devastating news to someone, it’s always best to pull them aside and tell them in private, away from others. Ideally, it is best to provide this delicate information in their home and in person. Pay attention to who else is in the room, such as children nearby or strangers that may overhear or witness their grief reactions.
They may not remember what you said, but they will remember how they felt when you told them. Ensure that the person has some privacy to feel more comfortable releasing their emotions upon getting the news.
2. Use straightforward language
Delivering the news that a loved one has died should be given in a straightforward language that is clear and easy to understand. You will not want to create confusion and leave the recipient wondering if there’s a chance of recovery. Using euphemisms for death when telling someone that their loved one has died can be very confusing.
You will want to get straight to the point lovingly and compassionately. For example, if someone died in an accident, say, “I hate to bring you bad news, but Robert was involved in a motorcycle accident and died this afternoon.” Don’t say, “Robert was in a motorcycle accident. They took him to the hospital but didn’t make it.” This approach raises questions such as, didn’t make it where? Or is he home now? When you use language such as passed away vs. died, you make the outcome seem unclear.
3. Prepare for their reaction
Telling someone their loved one has died can create an intense grief reaction that you may not know how to handle. Take into account the person’s age, maturity level, physical and mental condition before delivering the news. Although it’s essential to be truthful when providing the information, it’s also wise to prepare yourself for any adverse grief reactions.
Consider that you may need medical or professional intervention for them if they go into shock or exhibit some other type of extreme physical, emotional, or psychological reaction to the news.
4. Practice patience
The news that a loved one has died can be sad, confusing, and overwhelming to process. The person on the receiving end may not immediately process what you’ve told them. Be prepared to repeat the news and answer questions repeatedly until they are ready to receive and understand what you’re telling them.
Many people who get this type of news can have difficulty processing what you’re telling them. They may ask the same questions again and again. Although it can be painful for you to repeat the news, prepare yourself for this type of grief reaction so that you don’t become overwhelmed and lose patience.
5. Answer as many questions upfront
Try to include as much information as possible in one sentence when trying to answer a question. Anything less can lead to panic. As painful as getting this news can be, people will always understand the phrase, “your loved one has died.”
Consider writing down a script to use before telling someone that their loved one has died. For example, you can say something like the following to ease the confusion of an otherwise stressful situation:
“Brother, I am very sorry to tell you that your son died in an automobile accident this morning at 10:00 his time while he was on his way to work. I’ll take care of calling the rest of the family to give them the news. For now, let me handle things until the news settles in.”
No words can soften the pain of getting the news that your loved one has died. It doesn’t make sense to attempt to sugarcoat the truth and the end result.
6. Remind Them That They’re Not Alone
Grief affects people in many different ways. You never know what will trigger an escalated grief reaction in someone because you never truly know their vulnerabilities. When you think someone is strong and stoic and that they’ll be able to withstand hearing the news of their loved one’s death, the opposite reaction can occur.
Be ready to listen and comfort those on the receiving end. Offer suggestions for what to do next when asked. Otherwise, remind them that they’re not alone, listen to them, and lend a supportive shoulder for them to lean on. Always show compassion and concern without adding your personal opinions about their loved one or the manner in how they died.
How to Tell Someone Their Loved One Died on the Phone
Delivering the news by phone that a loved one has died is sometimes the best or only way to reach someone who lives far away or can’t otherwise be there in person. Although this isn’t the ideal way of telling someone, sometimes you’re left with no other choice.
As with conveying this type of news in person, it’s just as important, if not more so, to choose the right words when telling someone over the phone.
1. Ask where they’re at
Before deciding on what to say when someone dies to someone over the phone, first ask them where they’re at and what they’re doing. You will want to make sure that the person on the other end of the line is in a place where their safety is not compromised upon hearing the news.
For example, if they are driving, ask them to call you when they get to where they’re going. Never deliver such painful and devastating news to someone behind the wheel of a vehicle or in another type of compromising situation.
2. Be clear and direct
Use clear, meaningful, and impactful words to deliver the news in a caring and compassionate way but will not create confusion. Keep the conversation as short and to the point as possible without coming off cold and callous.
Always let the recipient know that you’re sorry for having to be the bearer of this news and express your condolences for their loss. Let them know that you’ll be giving them a call back in a few minutes after they’ve had some time to process the news to see if they have any questions or need any assistance from you.
3. Warn them of the nature of the call
Before blurting out the news that their loved one has died, warn the person on the other end that you are calling with some bad news. You’ll need to be prepared with ways on how to comfort someone who’s just learned of their loved one’s death.
Don’t add to this stressful situation by adding your commentary or theories relating to their loved one’s death. Hold back your opinions and only give them the facts as you know them. If they have questions you’re unable to answer, let them know that you’ll call them back with the answers.
4. Sending texts to advise of death
Try avoiding sending a text to let the other person know of their loved one’s death. Text messages are impersonal and can be a cruel way of delivering this type of news. If you’ve tried unsuccessfully reaching this person by phone, send a text message asking them to call you back. Let them know that it’s urgent and essential that they call you back right away.
Always make sure that close family members are all aware of their loved one’s death before sending an email blast to friends, distant family, and acquaintances advising them of the person’s death. It can be devastating to be one of the last ones to hear that your loved one died through social media circles and gossip.
5. Make sure you’re the right person
When picking up the phone to call someone to tell them that their loved one has died, make sure you’re the right person to do so.
Consider your relationship to the deceased and to the person who you are calling. A friend or other relative might be the better choice in delivering the news to an estranged relative or an ex-spouse.
Delivering the News of Loved One’s Death
There’s never a right way to break the news of a loved one’s death. No matter how well-spoken, no words can ever ease the pain of hearing that your loved one has died. To get comfortable delivering this type of news, write down what you want to say and practice it until you get comfortable.
Expect there to be tears, and know that what you say will likely stay with them forever.