The death of a loved one: how to notify family and friends

The death of a loved one: how to notify family and friends

There are few things more emotionally taxing in life than informing family and friends of the passing of a loved one. How news of bereavement is delivered may have a major impact on the grieving process of the person you are informing. Keeping it simple and staying receptive and sympathetic are crucial no matter who you are delivering the news to. We’ve compiled some ‘rules of thumb’ to guide you through this difficult process, but it is important to factor in personal circumstances and to vary your approach depending on the recipient, their age, and their relationship with the deceased.

Some general guidelines to remember

Break the news in person

Break the news in person if you’re informing a relative or close friend of the deceased. If it’s not possible to speak to them face to face – because they’re overseas, for example – be sensitive about how the news will impact the person on the phone and try to ensure they are in a private place before you deliver the news.

Rehearse what you’ll say

Rehearsing and scripting what you’ll say helps you get it right the first time. The right phrasing allows you to convey the information in a sensitive, empathetic way. Take time to write down what you’ll say and practice a few times before you meet the person or make the call. People who are told devastating news may become confused or illogical, so preparing what you’ll say ensures you convey all the information you need to clearly, yet sensitively.

Choose the right setting

Setting aside adequate time to deliver the news is important to make sure it is no more abrupt and shocking than it needs to be. Ideally, you should aim to speak with them in a quiet, private setting which is free from distractions. Try to speak to them in a safe and confidential place such as their house. Make sure there will be no interruptions when you’re talking to them, and switch off TVs, phones, and other devices.

Keep it simple

Focus on what you’re trying to convey and avoid bringing in unrelated issues and causing confusion. Acknowledge what’s happened, using plain language and speaking directly. Stagger what you’re trying to say and don’t give them too much information at once. It is often a good idea to speak, then check they understand what you’ve just said before giving them additional pieces of information.

Allow time to take it in

Allow the person time to take in the news. When hearing news of bereavement, it is normal for individuals to only take in a small amount of what you’re telling them. It’s important to be gentle and empathetic and to give them ample time process what’s been said. They might ask for confirmation of what they’ve heard, so be patient if they ask you to repeat the same information and correct them gently if anything has been misunderstood.

Be receptive and encouraging

Be receptive to their feelings and responses, and encourage the individual to express their feelings. Allowing for pauses and silences might feel uncomfortable, but it gives the person the space they need and communicates your receptiveness.

It’s important to avoid making assumptions about how someone should behave after the news. For example, some people might prefer returning to work for the distraction. Be supportive and receptive to different ways of grieving.

Give space

Give the person physical space as they take in the news and be highly receptive to their physical cues. Avoid approaching them for a hug if you get a sense they don’t want to be touched. If in doubt, it’s always a good idea to simply ask them if you can give them a hug or if they’d rather have some time alone.

Promises and commitments

The individual might ask you to promise or commit to something. Let them know you’ll be available for them to talk to, but commit only if you can follow through, because unfulfilled promises can betray trust. Practical help – such as cooking, cleaning, babysitting, and pet sitting – is often really appreciated when people are grieving.

Distressed family and friends

If the news leaves the person severely distressed, make sure you leave them in the company of a relative or friend. Avoid leaving them alone after they receive the news.

Enlist help

Delivering such upsetting news can be very emotionally taxing, even if you were not particularly close with the deceased yourself. Enlist the help of other family members and friends to break the news to people.

Friends can help with breaking the news to colleagues and other friends. For specific groups such as teams, workplaces, or volunteer groups, find a key person to break the news to people in the group.

Informing family members

Try to let family members (and close friends) know as soon as possible so they don’t find out by accident. Close relatives should be told in person, while a telephone call could be appropriate for other relatives. If you have many relatives to talk to, identify key family members who can help spread the news in an organised, methodical way.

Talking to children and young people

Parents will often be the best person to break the news to young people and children. If you’re the one breaking the news to a child or teenager, be honest and straightforward about what has happened. Use plain language to convey the information rather than euphemisms such as “sleeping”. If the child asks for more information, speak truthfully.

Letting friends know

It’s equally important to inform close friends in a timely manner. The death of a close friend is a major bereavement, and some close friends may struggle with feeling left out of the grieving process because they’re not blood relatives.

Identifying a deceased person’s close friends can be challenging. You might need to check their phone, address books, or even social media accounts to find out which friends to talk to.

Notifying colleagues

You’ll need to let the deceased person’s workplace, employer, and colleagues know. It might be sufficient to speak to their employer, but you could also take time to call close colleagues and let them know.

Informing the wider community

If the deceased was involved in a range of social and community activities, notify clubs, sport teams, gyms, and other community groups where necessary. A telephone call will usually be sufficient for this.

Being the bearer of bad news

It’s not always easy to break news of death, especially if the deceased was very close to you. Planning what you’ll be saying and using plain language can help you communicate effectively. Stay receptive and empathetic by giving time and space to the person you are informing is important to allow them to process the news. Enlist help from other family members and friends where necessary, and don’t hesitate to speak to a counsellor if you need assistance.


These articles are provided as reference material to allow more informed decision making, but are not intended as being a complete source of information on any topic. All readers should make their own independent analysis on the topic to make sure they have considered the aspects that are important to them.