Breaking Bad News
February 17, 2009
- If the family don't know you, identify yourself and ask if you can come in.
- Make absolutely sure you are talking to the right person — and do not give the news to children first.
- Ask the family member(s) to sit down — and ask where you should sit.
- Once you are seated, get straight to what you have come to say. Do not delay with any usual conversational pleasantries.
- It is important that you have prepared what you are going to say, and that you do not rush. The language you use matters. A word that may seem insignificant to you could have intense significance to the family.
- Be direct, clear and honest about what has happened. Do not beat about the bush, or package the bad news to make it more palatable. Use simple and direct language along the lines of:
- "I am sorry to have to tell you that (make sure you use the name that the family know him/her by) is dead (or has been killed, or has been very badly hurt)" Or.
- "I am afraid that I have very bad news. (Use name) is dead (or has been killed)."
- Be prepared to face raw emotion. People hearing of the unexpected death of a loved one might display uncontrollable grief. They may physically collapse — which is why it is important to be seated. They may be angry. They may be numb and unable to speak. All these are normal human reactions.
- Don't challenge or question what they are saying or feeling — allow them the space to experience that. Your presence is at this point more important than words.
- Be honest about what you know, and what you don't.
- Be prepared for many questions.
- Don't promise anything you can't deliver.
- Take time, and allow the family/those you are informing to respond at their own pace.
- Children should not be left out of this — but if they are young, be sensitive that that they may need looking after separately as your visit continues.
- Be aware of cultural differences — different religions and ethnic groups have different customs around death, which need to be respected. Don't be afraid to ask what these are, and how you and your organisation might best work with them in support of the family.