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April 18, 2018 Beyond The Dash

How to Deliver the News of a Death

An 8-step guide for notifying loved ones

How to Deliver the News of a Death
Make in-person contact a priority. Avoid delivering this news by text, email or phone unless unavoidable. (Shutterstock)

If you have never been the person tasked with delivering the news of a death, rest assured: it's just as unpleasant as you would imagine. Notifying a family member or close friend that someone they love has passed away means you are forever part of their grief story. 

This moment will be burned into their memory

You have the power to make the first knowledge of the death traumatizing. Let that sink in. Though there's no one right way to tell someone that their loved one is dead, there are many wrong ways. 

When it's your job to tell someone their sister, husband or best friend has died, you control the manner in which they receive life-altering news. No matter how carefully you proceed, you can't make this a good experience; however, you can take steps to ensure you don't do any additional harm. 

1. Consider the relationship

Should you be the person to deliver this news? Or would someone else be better suited? Think about the relationship they have with the deceased, and your own role in the life of the person you are informing. Does it make sense that you are the one to be telling this news? 

If you're close with either the deceased person, or the person being notified, the likely answer is yes. But sometimes this unpleasant task gets delegated to folks who are quite removed from the situation. If you don't think you should be the one to notify someone of their loved one's death, it might be worth mentioning to those who are closer with them. 

Unfortunately, there's no easy way to deliver terrible news, but it does help if you're known and trusted by the person receiving the news. Proceed even more cautiously if this isn't the case.

2. Consider the timing

Think about the person you intend to notify. Are they at work or school? Do they have anything important happening, like an exam or a big meeting? Telling someone of a death is an important and urgent responsibility, but there can be leeway if the timing isn't right. 

You can delay notifying someone of a death for a few hours, or overnight, if there are extenuating circumstances. Otherwise, it is a sign of respect to deliver this kind of serious news in a timely manner. 

3. Coordinate with others who already know

If others know of the death, it's important to discuss who is notifying whom. Equally important is discussing the trickle of information. You wouldn't want to hear through the grapevine that your best friend is dead. 

Especially during the first 24 hours, death announcements should be restricted to immediate family and closest friends. And it should definitely not appear on social media until loved ones have been informed personally first. 

Make sure everyone who knows is on the same page about this, and that everyone will do their duty with some level of urgency. If there needs to be a delay, ensure all involved know so that this news doesn't spread.

4. Make in-person contact a priority

Notifying someone of a death is a task that needs to be done in person. If you know where they are, find them. If you don't, get in touch and calmly explain you need to meet soon. You should try to temper your own emotions, and not give away the gravity of the situation until you are there with the person. 

However, they may suspect something is wrong anyway. There is no need to delay the notification if they already know something is up. 

Sometimes it is only possible to notify folks over the phone. If the travel time required to reach them jeopardizes delivering the news in a timely manner, you'll have to do it over the phone. Never text, email or leave a voicemail to this effect. 

5. Give a warning

Once you are with the person, give them a brief warning of the unpleasant news to come. Have them sit down and prepare. If you are on the phone, ensure they have someone with them, and that they are sitting down. 

Though it's rare, people can become ill when receiving unexpected bad news. You want to make sure that the person will be safe in the rare event that they panic, have a heart attack or faint. Explaining in advance that you have news for which no one can be prepared does in fact help reduce shock, if only a little. 

6. Be gentle and direct

Don't avoid saying dead. Once you are in person and have prepared them for bad news, there is no need for euphemisms or avoiding the subject. Deliver the news with control, compassion and words that leave no room for ambiguity. 

7. Offer support

Don't rush away as soon as you have delivered the news. Make sure they are okay. Be there if they need to talk. Help them reach other family members, or drive them to be with loved ones. Offer your support, but be okay with it if they ask for privacy. 

8. Follow up

Check in with the person in the following days, or at the funeral. Make sure they know how to contact you in the future. These moments are often forgotten in the aftermath of devastating grief. They may need to meet with you again to fill in the blanks in their memory. 

The takeaway

Use your common sense, and an abundance of sensitivity if you are tasked with delivering tragic news. If any of the steps in this guide are not possible, try your best to at least not do harm in your notification of a death. 

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