How to break the news that someone has died
When sharing the painful, often shocking, news, a face-to-face conversation is ideal, if possible.
Telling someone in person gives you the chance to cry together and comfort each other in person.
On the other hand, calling family and friends by phone is a fast, easy, and accessible way to ensure the news reaches those who are farther away.
While email is less personal, it can often be the best way to notify those outside of your immediate circle.
Posting on social media will help you reach anyone you were unable to contact through other means, or those you may not have known were part of your loved one’s life.
When someone close to you dies, one of the first tasks you may have is to let everyone who loved them know about their passing. This is often a difficult, emotional, and exhausting task, made even harder by the fact that you are still reeling from your loved one’s death yourself.
But spreading word of their passing is a necessary step in celebrating the person’s life and mourning their loss.
Depending on who they are and their relationship to your loved one, what you say to each person is going to be different.
You can prepare emotionally for these to be tough conversations: Take a deep breath before reaching out, and stay open to the various types of responses you’ll receive.
Grief is a different for everyone, and it can evoke a whole spectrum of reactions. Some people even laugh when they hear someone has passed away, as a response to the anxiety they’re feeling or as a coping mechanism. Others will immediately fall apart, screaming and crying. Be prepared to encounter these and a whole range of responses in between.
When you call someone to tell them a loved one has died
It would be ideal to let everyone know face to face, so you can cry together and comfort one another in person. But this is often not possible, with family and friends that may be all over the country or even the globe.
The next best—and often next most intimate—option is to call them by phone. Whether your loved one passed away suddenly or after a long illness, it’s best to keep it simple when you share the news.
If you’re asked a lot of questions that you’re not emotionally ready to get into, there’s nothing wrong with telling the person that you don’t have all the answers at the moment. Speak in a clear and steady voice, if you can, but don’t put too much pressure on yourself to have all the answers in this initial phone call.
If the person you’ve called wants to share a fond memory, in addition to expressing their condolences, then listen. If they cry and say something a bit off the cuff or even offensive, let them. While your instinct may be to get defensive, hold back the urge to respond negatively. It’s common for loss to evoke anger in some people, so keep that in mind and be as forgiving as you can.
There are no rules for how to grieve, and you can’t be expected to be ready for every reaction you get, but if you remind yourself before each call that you don’t know where it will go or how it will end, you will be prepared for odd responses.
If you’re unsure as to what you want to say or even how to start, don’t be afraid to use notes to get you through the call. Your message should be direct. You don’t want to share the news five minutes into the conversation. Instead, start with, “I have some sad news,” then go from there, using simple, to-the-point language.
Don’t try to make them feel better about the situation, because you don’t know how they’re feeling. The best you can do is let them have a moment to process the information and respond if they want to. You’re basically taking the lead from the person on the other end of the phone, which will be different with each person you call.
It’s also a good idea to initiate a phone tree, so you’re not the only one taking on the responsibility of notifying everyone. But you will still likely have multiple calls to make. Don’t rush, and take as many breaks as you need to get through them all. And don’t allow the calls to go on for too long, which can get draining very quickly. People will want to know when and where the funeral will be held, and sharing this information is a fitting way to close a conversation.
Sending an email to share the news of a loved one’s death
While email is less personal than a phone call, it can often be the best way to notify those outside of your immediate circle. The person’s coworkers, for example, might best be notified via email, or their more casual friends.
In cases where you can’t find someone’s phone number, an email may also be the best option. Although a handwritten note may seem more polite and respectful, this notification shouldn’t wait for traditional mail delivery. Unless, of course, the person happens to be older and doesn’t have email; then a letter may be your only choice.
Start your email with a formal salutation and the person’s name. It doesn’t matter if this person is a relative stranger or a very close friend—you want to be respectful.
In the first couple of sentences, the ones in which you inform them of the death, consider how you would want to be approached in the same situation. What words would comfort you? What phrases will convey empathy and compassion, and the understanding that this is a pain that you are all experiencing together? Word choice is everything.
If this means you need to do a few drafts before coming up with the right language that hits the mark, take the time to get it right.
Be mindful of both how you want to honor your loved one’s memory and the feelings of those who loved them.
If you know the exact relationship that your loved one had with the recipient of the email, mention that. Point out how important they were to the person and how lucky they were to have known each other. Instead of saying outright that you understand their pain, shock, and confusion, it’s often best to mention that your loved one’s death is a major loss for everyone who knew them.
Emailing coworkers about a death in the family
It is helpful to write a mass email for your loved one’s wider circle: their boss, coworkers, acquaintances, fellow churchgoers or community members, and distant relatives.
Remember to bcc all email addresses to respect the recipients’ privacy. Although you shouldn’t feel the need to give specific details about your loved one’s death, a line or two about how they died—e.g. “after a long battle with cancer”—will ease their curiosity, and ideally prevent them from emailing you back with a multitude of questions.
If the funeral has already been planned, be sure to include that information before closing the email with a final expression of compassion.
While the bulk of the email can be copied and pasted into more than one email, you don’t want to send a mass email for such an announcement. Be mindful of both how you want to honor your loved one’s memory and the feelings of those who loved them. An email sent to many addresses at once isn’t going to convey that.
How to share a death announcement on social media
Although announcing your loved one’s passing online may feel uncomfortably public and impersonal, in our digital world it is your best bet for reaching anyone you were unable to contact through other means or those you may not have known were part of your loved one’s life. Be very careful to make sure all family members and close friends have already been told before you take to Facebook or Instagram for the announcement.
As with an email, be careful with your word choice and how you broach the subject. Also mention that you are sorry to anyone who had to find out this way, but this was the best means for letting them know.
While you may want to inform everyone about the death of your loved one as soon as possible, wait a day or two before making a social media announcement. You will still be grieving when you write the words, but you will have given both yourself and those who found out via phone or email a couple days to process what has happened before being confronted with it again. It’s a matter of respect and a way to avoid causing more suffering.
Start your announcement with a warning, so that the reader is prepared for bad news. If someone is reading it as they’re walking down the street, they’ll want a heads up that strong emotions might follow. Even though your announcement is general and not addressed to anyone in particular, it is still a good idea to write just how important to the person their loved ones were, as well as funeral information if you are making that public.
It’s up to you as to whether or not you want to allow others to comment on the post. For some, talking about memories and good times they spent with your loved one can feel healing, while others may not see it that way. Think about what they would have preferred, and go in that direction.
There is no easy way to broach the subject of death, especially the death of a loved one. But if you choose your words carefully, consider how you’d want the news to be relayed to you, and give yourself the chance to grieve in the process, you’ll get through it. Remember to breathe, step back when you need to, and never hesitate to reach out to others for help when you need it.
You may be eligible for free bereavement support. Empathy can help with everything from funeral planning to estate administration, with step-by-step guidance and real-time expert support. Many people get free premium access to Empathy as a benefit with their life insurance claim. We partner with New York Life, Guardian Life Insurance Company, Bestow, Lemonade, and other leading carriers. When you make your life insurance claim, talk to your representative about whether Empathy is a benefit they offer.
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