Breaking Bad News

This booklet is intended to offer informal guidance in circumstances where journalists, their editors or managers are required to tell next-of-kin of the death of a colleague.

This booklet is intended to offer informal guidance in circumstances where journalists, their editors or managers are required to tell next-of-kin of the death of a colleague.

The advice is based on the experience and training of London’s Metropolitan Police and the BBC.

Neither the Dart Centre nor the Metropolitan Police nor the BBC accept any responsibility for actions or outcomes which may follow from use of this document.

I. Key Points

• The moment when someone is notified of the death of a close family member can be the most important in their lives.

• News of a loved-one's death is one of the deepest traumas human beings can experience. It can have a very powerful emotional and physical impact — immediate or delayed — on those receiving the information.

• How the news is conveyed can significantly influence how an individual or family deals with the trauma afterwards.

• Only if absolutely unavoidable should you deliver such a message by telephone. This must be done in person before the news has been reported in the media.

It's important that there are two of you to do this. Take a colleague with you — for mutual support, and for practical reasons (e.g. helping look after children).

• If you cannot deliver the message in person and in time, you might wish to contact the local police to ask them to do this for you.

• Note also that if you are telling a family that a colleague is missing, and that you are seriously worried for their safety, then this is also best done in person and not by telephone.

• Under no circumstances should you let the bereaved drive themselves anywhere after receiving this communication.

II. How to Prepare Yourself

  • Try beforehand to find out, as far as possible:
    • The location of the body, or the injured colleague, and whether next-of-kin are going to be able to visit (many bereaved wish to do so);
    • Exactly what happened (as far as is known at this point), the circumstances, where they were, what they were doing, the details of their death or injury, the condition of the body.
    • Experience suggests that bereaved family members often want to know this information in considerable — and accurate and honest — detail. Be prepared to help them find out everything they need to know.
  • Ensure that the news blackout holds until the immediate family and other family/friends/colleagues have been told — then, if appropriate, organise brief updates to your organisation's press office for public consumption.
  • You will need to make sure the family know what is going out in public, and that they know more. They will then trust your organisation to be telling them everything, and not worry about speculative reports in the wider media.
  • Ask your colleagues back at work to keep up a steady flow of updated information to reach the team breaking the news — text messages to a silent mobile are the best way to do this.
  • Ensure your press office is across everything, and is able to ensure that there is no unwanted press presence at the house.
  • None of the above should delay delivering the message. If necessary, the local police can be asked for help.

III. Important Considerations

  • DON'T telephone the family/bereaved in advance to say you are coming. Try to find out discreetly where they might be found in person. If you need to break the news in the workplace, ask the person's manager beforehand for a quiet space to meet.
  • Make sure there is a second person there to support you. This might be another member of your management team, or someone who knows the family. Ideally, if you're a woman, take a male colleague, and vice versa. It can help to have a male-female mix.
  • If there is a need to convey bad news to family members/next-of-kin abroad, this is best done in person by someone known to and trusted by you. This individual is unlikely to have been trained, so this document should be emailed to them, accompanied by a detailed telephone briefing before they make the visit.
  • Those volunteering for this work must know that it can mean travelling, and being involved for some days — and even weeks or months.
  • Remember that you may be telling next of kin of the death of someone who was also close to you personally. Do not underestimate the powerful effect this may have on you.
  • Make sure you have your own support. If you feel too distressed to do this, it's important — and OK — that you ask someone else to take over.

IV. What to Do When You Get There

  • 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.

V. Things to Say and Not to Say

  • Be open and honest; don't try to shield the family from the circumstances of the death. They may well find out the details through other channels.
  • Let them know how very sorry you yourself are about what has happened. Helpful phrases may include:
    • "I cannot begin to imagine how you may be feeling at the moment."
    • "May I say how very sorry I am about what has happened."
    • "I'm so sorry that we are meeting under these tragic circumstances."
  • As you talk of the circumstances of the death/injury, let them control when they want detail and when they don't. Think of it as giving them the remote control for this. Appropriate words might include the following:
    • "Would you like me to tell you what we know so far about what happened to (use name)?"
    • "This will be upsetting, so please stop me at any time. Tell me if there is anything I say that you don't understand, or which you want me to repeat.
    • "Do you want to write any of this down?" Have a pen and paper to hand in case they do want to do so.
  • Be prepared to repeat yourself because of the enormity of what the family are taking on board.
  • Do not say: "I know how you feel" or "Are you happy with that?" You cannot know how they feel. The words "happy" and death are not compatible.
  • Do not try to finish off anyone's sentences. Let them formulate what they want to say, even if this takes some time.
  • Accept that you won't have answers to all their questions. It can help if you write their questions down, and say you'll do your best to find the answers and let them know as soon as possible.
  • Don't ask them to fill in any forms at this point — e.g. on National Insurance, death certificates etc. Come back to these later.

VI. Practical Details

  • Ask the family if there is anyone else they want to contact, or to be with them there now, and how your organisation might help.
  • The family should be left to deliver the message to other family members themselves, but your organisation may be able to help with transport.
  • Ask the family who they would like to nominate on their side as a point of contact. They should also be given a single contact person within your organisation who will keep them up to date and find answers to any questions they have. Agree what times that person can be contacted.
  • Find out what the family members need to do after you leave — collect children, talk with other family members, etc — and whether your organisation can help.
  • Ask if there is anything that they need you to do/want you to find out.
  • Tell them what you are going to do next.
  • Where there are questions about logistics, reassure the family that your organisation will deal with all the arrangements for bringing the body back to the UK or caring for the injured colleague, and that you will keep them informed. You may in due course need other information such as which funeral directors who will be bringing the body back.
  • To remind, under no circumstances should you let the bereaved drive themselves anywhere after receiving this communication.

VII. Length of Meeting & Endings

  • You will need to use your judgement how long to stay — and how long the family wants you to be there. It may be for a longer period. Or it may be that after they have heard the main details, they wish to be left alone for a while, and for you to come back later.
  • At an appropriate point once you have delivered the bad news, discuss how long you are able to stay. Agreeing that you will stay for another hour, for example, will set a timeframe for the rest of the meeting, which you can refer back to as you come to the end of that time.
  • An hour to an hour-and-a-half has a natural progression. Very often, most of what needs to be said/discussed can be done in that time, as long as all present know that that is the time that is available.
  • Remember when considering how long to stay that even an hour is a long time to spend with people in a highly emotional state.
  • As that time approaches, refer to the amount of time left. This will help you to end the meeting as agreed.
  • Some phrases that might be useful:
    • "We have talked about a lot of difficult/painful things here. You may find yourself going over these in your mind."
    • "Writing your questions down may help, and we will try to answer them the next time we meet or telephone.
  • Sometimes the meeting will develop its own powerful family dynamic, and you will realise that it is better for you at this point to leave. Words might include.
    • "Perhaps we should leave it at that now?"
    • "Perhaps we have gone as far as we can at the moment, and we'll have to leave it there for now."
    • "We will be meeting again on .. and perhaps we can revisit that then?"
  • You might ask the family what would they would like to do. "How do you want to go from here?"
  • Before you leave, arrange with the family very clearly when and how you will next be in touch or meeting. Write down the date and time of your next meeting for the family to remember. Make sure you keep that appointment. It matters crucially for the family.
  • If there is still much to say that you have been unable to communicate, then perhaps you should arrange to go back the next day. If you have given all the information you have at this point, and are waiting for other details, then make arrangements to see them in a couple of days.

VIII. Further Suggestions and The Longer Term

  • If a crime has been involved, be aware that Police processes can be particularly traumatic. Police in many countries have extensive experience and training in working with the bereaved, so discuss with them how best to manage this period and support family members.
  • Police press officers can manage the media both for the family and your organisation. The press may want to talk to the family a lot — and the family will need support in this.
  • Bear in mind that when there has been a death abroad, a body is generally not released for repatriation until there is an undertaker in the country of destination ready to receive it. The Foreign Office or State Department/Foreign Ministry can usually advise on undertakers who are used to doing this work and who know the procedures.
  • It is important that the family feel supported by your organisation in the longer term — within the bounds of what is doable.
  • Do stay in touch, especially in the early weeks and months, and remember that birthdays and anniversaries can be very painful. A telephone call or a visit at these times can help a great deal.
  • However, don't become their emotional life support system. If you do, they risk experiencing a second bereavement when you go.