When the death is unexpected, the news will surely have been a shock to you – so you need to expect that reaction in those you tell. Even when the death is expected, as in a long illness, or when a loved one is in hospice care, the news may be difficult to deliver.
Before you go any further, the overriding question to ask, no matter the situation, is this one:
What Do You Want this Experience to be Like for Your Family?
Think about it. This will be a time in their life they will always remember. Just how do you want them to look back on it?
We’re confident you’d say you want them to remember it as a time of loving compassion; where the news of their loved one’s death was delivered with kindness and understanding. And that takes forethought. One aspect of thinking ahead includes avoiding the Internet channels of communication during the first hours after a loved one dies.
You want to be very careful that this information is not broadcasted through Facebook or Twitter (or any other social media site), or via Instant Messaging, before you’ve had the opportunity to connect with family members personally.
Stop, Think…and then Speak
You know your family members, and chances are you can predict how each one of them needs to be cared for during this difficult time. Our best advice is that you walk into this situation with your “eyes wide open”, and set the stage accordingly.
Should you call them in the middle of the night, or while they are at work, or school? Only you know the answer. But, when you tell them is an important consideration, and your family member deserves your clearest thinking on the matter of when you tell them the news.
Then, you need to think about how you will break the news. It’s preferable to deliver such news in person, but if that’s not possible, a phone call will have to do. In either case, we have some valuable suggestions:
Protect them by asking them to sit down. After all, such news can often make someone’s knees buckle, and send them crashing to the floor.
Choose your words carefully. You know the right words for the person you’re speaking to hear. If using a phrase like “passed on”, “passed away”, or “gone to a better place” makes sense, then use it. If you think they would they would rather hear their loved one has died, then that word is appropriate.
Give them as many of the details involved in the death as you feel they need to hear right now.
When you’re done, ask them if there’s anything they would like to know, and if there is, answer their questions as best as you can.
Let them know they can continue to ask questions during the days ahead, and that they can openly express any emotions they are feeling now – and in the future – such as fear, guilt, sadness, depression, or anger.
After the call is made, or the news shared in person, keep the lines of communication open. And in the days to come, help your family member (to the best of your ability, considering your own grief) work through these emotions by encouraging them and reassuring them. Naturally, family members should support one another; so don’t neglect to turn to them for support as well.
Death, no matter the circumstance, is hard for us to handle. Keep in mind that the best thing that you can do for anyone when informing them of a death is to deliver the news thoughtfully. Let them know that you are there for them and that you love them. That too is an essential truth they need to know.