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How to let others know of a death

By Erica Lamberg
One of the first steps in the process of handling a death is quickly and compassionately sharing the news with the circle of family and closest friends. Engin Akyurt / Pexels

The first step in the process of handling a death is quickly and compassionately sharing the news. The vital first decisions - even as you're grappling with the death yourself – is deciding who gets told first, and how. 

Here are some tips on how to decide the best way to navigate the process: 

Tip 1: Personal calls

Start with immediate and extended family members, and with the closest friends – people who deserve to hear directly. These people may be best to contact by phone. If you have any details about funeral arrangements, pass them along – but don't delay notifying this inner circle if the arrangements are still pending. You should consider splitting the list of calls with other family members or close friends, and as you notify the inner circle, make sure you have up-to-date contact information (such as an email address) so you can share additional details when available.

Tip 2: Use video chats

Tools like Skype, Zoom, Facetime or Google Hangouts can be useful, but ensure the people you're inviting to a chat are comfortable with the technology, and know that the subject matter is serious. Catching someone off guard with sad news can be tough.

Tip 3: Emailing

Email is a convenient and efficient – if impersonal –  way to notify about a death and share details about funeral arrangements. Keep in mind that emails are often forwarded – so don't include any sensitive information you don't want widely shared. 

Tip 4: Text messages

Text messages are immediate, private and are likely to be read. Be mindful that the recipient may not be in a private place and consider a preliminary text to help prepare for the news. A group chat can effectively provide updates as plans progress. Make sure to keep the text messaging group small, as larger groups can become unwieldy and difficult to manage.

Tip 5: The obituary

A written obituary, published in print and online, spreads word about the death and memorial arrangements in a trusted and familiar format. As you're writing it, make sure the details are correct and encourage input from others close to the departed. And remember to have a fresh set of eyes review the obituary before it is sent off – double-checking spelling of survivors and key details of the deceased’s life. 

Tip: 6: Understand the implications of social media

Finding out about a friend or loved one’s death is always difficult, but the shock of hearing about it first through social media can add to the pain. In the digital age, news travels instantly – so it is essential to use social media appropriately and respectfully. Carla Bevins, assistant teaching professor of Business Communications at Carnegie Mellon University's Tepper School of Business shares these tips when preparing to share the news of a loved one’s passing on social media.

1. Make sure the immediate family is notified offline first so they can process the news before any online announcement is made. It's tempting to post the news on social media as soon as you hear it, these announcements should come from the family. If you hear about a death, keep that information to yourself unless you have the family’s permission to share.

2. Keep social posts brief and factual. Consider posting the obituary where others can share condolences, memories, pictures, and stories. You can look back at these posts in the days and weeks to come. Also, the obituary generally has the most up-to-date information about services and other arrangements. 

3. Preface the post before sharing the news. For example, “Dear Friends, it is with great sadness that I share with you today the passing of someone very special to us…” While no one is ever prepared for tragic news, this can soften the blow or allow readers to choose when to read your post (not before a stressful meeting).

4. If you choose to have a service or public gathering, social media can be an effective way to let friends and family know about it. Make sure you have the details finalized before posting and have a main contact person for questions. This might be a good time to delegate to someone who is able to manage this task.

5. Prior to a family member’s death, talk about how they’d like to be remembered on social media. Facebook now offers a Legacy Contact who can manage your account after you pass away.

6. Designate someone or a few people to be the communication point(s) of contact for the family. That way you can tell one person, and they can share the information with everyone else. This decreases cognitive and emotional fatigue and also ensures the messages stay correct.

7. Facebook won't show everyone your post. Facebook uses an algorithm to determine which posts enter your feed. Keep it mind that it’s possible your post will not show up for everyone you hope to notify. It's also possible that some people may not see the post until after the services are over. 

Tip 7:  No single method of communication works for everyone

Consider the formats that will reach the widest amount of people most quickly. “If you’re sharing the news of an older family member who did not use social media very often, then a more traditional format like a phone chain or newspaper obituary might be more appropriate,” Bevins says. “For a phone chain, be willing to contact a few close friends with a list of people and have them call others to share the news.” After announcing a death, follow-up also includes spreading the word about the service. Once a date and time have been set for the service, share the details with those on your contact list. Include an address to send cards, flowers or donations. It’s also important to send follow up messages of gratitude.  “Make a list of well-wishers. Keep track of who sends cards, flowers and donations so that you can acknowledge them later,” Bevins said.

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