Telling others about a death
When someone dies and it’s down to you to break the news, the way you deliver the message is crucial for the person you have to speak to, and for yourself. Whether you are breaking the news to a close relative, friend or carer, or to someone you don’t know very well, the following guidelines may help.
Breaking bad news guidelines
- It’s important to remember that the manner in which bad news is delivered will stay with the person. Therefore, it is best to break the news face-to-face. Even when this is not possible - relatives may, for example, be abroad - be sensitive to the impact that the news may have on the person at the other end of the telephone.
- It may help to prepare yourself by rehearsing what you are going to say, especially when speaking to someone who may have disability or learning issues, or may not have English as their first language. The health of elderly people also needs to be taken into account.
- Give yourself plenty of time when you are with the person, and make sure you break the news, as far as possible, in a safe and confidential setting.
- If possible, make sure there are no interruptions. Switch off mobile phones and telephones, and turn off radios and televisions.
- Stick with the task in hand. Use plain, simple language, and don’t waffle or bring in unrelated issues as it can cause confusion.
- In the majority of cases, people who hear bad news will only be able to take in a small amount of what is being said. So validate what they understand has happened, and encourage them to express their feelings. Gently correct them if necessary, and be prepared to repeat yourself if necessary.
- Don’t swamp the person. They may need physical space to take in this news. So leave it up to them if they want to be touched or held.
- Don’t promise anything that you can’t deliver or commit to anything you can’t carry through. This will destroy trust.
- If the person becomes very distressed, and you are unable to stay with them, you may need to ask about someone you can contact on their behalf, such as a neighbour or friend, or family who live close by and can stay with them.
- You may find that delivering bad news plays on your mind afterwards. If it starts to cause you distress, do find someone to talk to about it: find professional help.
Knowing what to say and how to say it to children and young people suffering from bereavement can be very hard. However, children tend to grieve differently from adults as they do not experience the same prolonged, intense feelings adults do. Advice from experts is to be honest and clear about what has happened. Keep language simple, and be ready to answer questions truthfully. If you don’t know how to broach it, or you feel you are making things worse, do seek help from organisations such as Winston’s Wish which specialise in providing help and support to anyone concerned about a grieving child, or needing help in knowing what to do or what to say.
- Talking about death and dying
- The spiritual aspects of death
- Being with someone when they die
- Further information and support
This content has been funded by Macmillan Cancer Support. It was commissioned as part of Find Me Help, Dying Matters' new online search tool which gives access to a comprehensive database of national and local organisations providing support and advice for people coping with death, dying and bereavement.