How to Deliver Bad News

Dear Mrs. McVeigh,
My sister got a phone call late one night from our uncle that our aunt passed away. The next morning she came to my house, because we had plans to go to breakfast with some friends. As three of us were waiting for one more friend, she could have asked me if she could see me in private for a moment. But instead, when we got to the restaurant, the two friends went to tell the hostess that there were four of us. She then turned to me and said, “Aunt Dorothy died last night.” I was stunned because it was an unexpected death, and the way my sister told me was like it came out of nowhere. Several years ago she casually mentioned at a family dinner that an uncle had died, and then followed with a comment of she did not think that I would be that upset. Now that the funeral is over, I would like to coach her on an appropriate way to break bad news. What should I tell her?

Dear Anonymous,
First, I am sorry for the loss of your aunt. When notifying people of someone passing away, I think you should set the stage for the bad news. It does not matter if it is a close relative, or an acquaintance. Everyone handles death differently. Telling them in a private setting is best, so person is able to collect his thoughts and have a moment to be alone to absorb the information. In your case at your house in another room, your sister could have said something like, “I have some sad news. Uncle Jack called me late last night. He said that he found Aunt Dorothy on the bed lifeless. He called 911, rushed her to the hospital, and it was too late. I know you are upset as I am. I am sorry I had to tell you this terrible news.” This way the person can mentally prepare herself, has her initial questions answered, and the person delivering the news is there to hold the person’s hand or hug her. I think it is nice that you are going to help your sister be more aware of how insensitive she is coming across.