Telling family and friends the sad news

6 min read

Helpful hints for how to tell people

  • If you’re unable to share the news in person, a phone call is the next best way to go.

  • Rehearse or write down how you want to tell them that your loved one has died.

  • Be direct and do not skirt around what happened.

  • Consider tackling the hardest conversations first.

  • Don’t forget to ask for help when you need it.

When a beloved family member dies, one of the first—and often one of the most difficult—things to do is to inform family and friends about their passing. Even if the death was expected, this can be a painful and draining task. If other family members are with you, it will often help to divide up the job or to start finding others to enlist. Take it slow, check in with yourself, and remember that this is all a part of the grieving process.

Until now you’ve been on your own, or in a small circle of family, dealing with the most urgent details of your loved one’s death. But informing everyone else about your loss makes it public; it puts it out there in the world and makes it much more real. It is natural, therefore, to want to put this stage off, to keep the news and your grief personal.

You may thus immediately begin coming up with reasons to delay: It’s better to do this face-to-face. Let’s wait until I can find a time to sit down with everyone, even if that’s days from now.

It is best to resist this inclination. Informing others is hard, but people want to know as quickly as possible. And telling them can be a source of great comfort, as others share in your grief, and you are reminded of just how many people there are out there who loved the person as you did.

If you can tell your closest family in person right away, that is ideal. It is respectful and appropriate, and it will allow you to cry together and hold each other. It can also be extremely helpful to be together while you inform others by phone.

For family members who you cannot meet face-to-face, as well as the person’s close friends and anyone else who should be informed quickly, a phone call is generally the way to go.

It is often a good idea to rehearse or even write down how you want to deliver the news. Compared with an in-person meeting, it can be much harder to broach such a difficult subject over the phone. You don’t want to get sidetracked into preliminary small talk before delivering the sad news. Consider carefully how you want to say it; the first words you say will probably stay with them. Be sensitive, compassionate, and supportive, but be direct and do not skirt around what happened.

As they respond, take your time and be as open and human as possible. Remember that the person on the other end of the line is experiencing sudden grief and even shock. Be prepared for them not to take in everything you are saying. You may need to repeat yourself several times, or clarify details you think are unimportant.

Repeating the details of your loved one's passing may stir up your own grief, which is totally normal and understandable.

Some people may react in surprisingly insensitive ways. They may try to dismiss your feelings by saying “At least he went quickly” or “She lived a full life.” Or they might deny they really knew your loved one well, or even say something negative about them. Again, this is usually a reaction to shock, and isn’t as malicious as it may seem. Know that it happens, and try your best to be as kind and understanding as possible. But also remember that your wellbeing must come first—if you need to get off the phone to avoid escalation, you’ve done what you called to do. Apologize and hang up. 

Many people you call will want to know funeral information; sharing this is a good way to close out the call, as it communicates that your conversation can and will continue soon in person.

When planning phone calls, a lot of people find it easiest to tackle the hardest ones first. The first calls will be difficult anyway. The more people you tell, the more support you will have. You don’t have to take the whole task on yourself: Ask family members if they will call others on the list.

You will likely feel drained after a few calls. Repeating the details may stir up your own grief, which is totally normal and understandable. Try to take your time and not get overwhelmed. If you have close friends of your own who you can call to tell them about your loss, those calls can be a great support for you, as they will be focused on your grief and not the grief of those you’re calling. Intersperse them with the calls to family if possible, or make sure you have one supportive friend who you can rely on and call them when you’re feeling drained.

For your loved one’s larger circle of friends and family, you may want to write a notification email. (If the intended recipients include older people who do not use or regularly access email, you can print out the letter and mail it to them.) Consult with your family on the text of the email, if possible. Start by saying how sorry you are to have to tell them this, then tell what happened in direct but compassionate language. As with the phone calls, end with funeral information and other ways the recipients can help or reach out if they cannot attend.

Allow yourself to feel what you’re feeling and don’t try to force a happy face on a hard task.

If your loved one used social media, their accounts may be a good way of identifying their friends to send an email to. If you have access to their account, you may want to post a version of the same text as their final update. Otherwise, you can contact the platform and tell them the person has died; usually they will not give you access to the account, but they will convert it to a memorial account, which lets anyone who visits their page know that they have passed away. Make sure you have definitely informed all close family and friends before taking this step.

Contact any religious institution your loved one was an active part of. They will communicate news of the person’s death to their congregation. (They will likely also be an invaluable help in planning the funeral.) Also inform any professional organizations or alumni organizations they were members of. You may want to take this time, while informing people is on your mind, to start composing an obituary.

The whole process may leave you feeling a whole range of difficult emotions, from guilt to anger to utter exhaustion. Allow yourself to feel what you’re feeling and don’t try to force a happy face on a hard task. Remember that this is one of the hardest things we are called on to do during our lives: to rise through our own sadness and pain to include others in the circle of our grief. Nobody expects you to be perfect at it, so be kind to yourself and don’t forget to ask 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.