How To Tell Someone Their Loved One Passed Away

This isn't going to be a pretty post. It might be a little raw (and I'm not talking about cookie dough), and it's definitely not filled with fun and pretty pictures. But this is something that I feel needs to be shared, even if it only helps one person. Everyone has that one day, or perhaps several days, that you remember every single detail of - the good the bad and the ugly. That day might be one that shapes your adult life, one that might even influence how you interact with your own kids and loved ones. This is my story of the day that changed the direction of my life forever.

*An open letter to anyone that works with youth/kids and travels with them...but really this applies to anyone that might need to give someone bad news.

I'd first like to start this with prefacing that I am so grateful for the people God has placed in my life at just the right time. To Rob and Kelly, thank you. You may not know (but should!) how much your compassion and support meant to me, especially on one of the hardest days of my life. To my Aunt Karen, thank you for being so caring and loving and standing in to give me a hug when my dad couldn't. To my dad: I love you.

Also, I'm not a professional counselor or therapist or trained in whatever profession this falls under. This is just me sharing my story, and hopefully getting you to think about how you might hold space for someone if you ever find yourself in a similar situation.  

How to tell someone their loved one has passed away...

Dear Youth Volunteers and Leaders, Pastors, Camp Counselors, Troop Leaders, etc...

This might not ever be a situation that you will find yourself in, especially now that in 2017 pretty much every kid has a cell phone, and parents are able to communicate directly without a middle person. But back in 1998 (at age 17), while cell phones were around and I did have one that I took with me when out with friends, it wasn't something that I took with me on a trip with other adults chaperoning. (This story might also explain my obsession with always having my phone on and next to me at night - I have anxiety about missing a bad-news phone call.) This is a situation that you probably aren't trained for as a counselor, teacher, pastor, leader...but perhaps it is something that should be given some thought.

How do you tell someone, while in your care, that their family member has passed away?

The answer is: there really isn't a good way to do it, but there are some things that can done to help ease the situation a little.

I certainly don't "blame" anyone, or think that they were doing anything less than just trying to be supportive. I'm sure they all had good intentions. Just keep in mind that even good intentions might put the person receiving the news in an awkward and vulnerable position. Here is my story:

Sunset beach with ocean and pink sky

It was mid-July 1998. July 15th, 1998 to be exact. I was involved with my church's youth choir, and we were on our annual summer choir tour. I honestly can't really tell you how many high school kids were on the tour that year, I'd guess around 50 - 60ish or so? Our choir had concerts at a few different churches, and also did volunteer work along the way. I don't remember where we were exactly, somewhere in Southern California.

It was around 8:00AM, and we were at a hotel. We were packing up to meet at the bus for breakfast, and then be on our way to the next stop for the day. One of the leaders came to our room and asked me to go with them. I immediately thought I might be getting a "come to Jesus" talk for some of the pranks my friends/roomies and I had pulled the night before. Oops. She opened another hotel room's door, and I saw almost all of the adults that were chaperoning in that room. The Senior Pastor and his wife from our church were there also (they had joined us on tour for a few days - their son was also in the choir). I already knew what was coming the moment I walked through the door and saw the small crowd of somber adults... fact, I already knew that it was going to happen before we even left on the bus the first day. While the bus was pulling out of the church parking lot, I remember having a strange thought grip me, turning to the friend I was sitting next to and saying, "I'm never going to see my mom again". So there I was, walking into the moment that would forever change my life... 

Have you ever had an out-of-body experience? I have a few times. Labor (specifically transition - they don't prepare you for that one!) during the birth of my oldest was definitely one of the times I experienced it. Another was when I was a passenger in my best friend's car and we were in a horrible accident on the freeway. And then there was this time. The moment I stepped through the hotel room door I felt like I was floating and watching my life happen. Fight or flight. I couldn't fight, and I couldn't escape even though everything in me wanted to turn right around and run off and away from the stuffy hotel room with so many sad adult eyes staring at me. So off I flew to watch my life unfold like a movie. Oh, and just like a movie? I could feel everyone in that room literally whip their heads around and stare...and where there was once some nervous chatter, it was replaced by immediate silence.

Talk about awkward. I'm more or less a just rip the band-aid off kind of girl. Lets get it done and over with and move on. But there was just awkwardness like no one knew what to say or do. Someone finally said something, we were waiting for someone to get there. Someone else tried to make awkward small talk. Pastor Rick asked if we could pray, so I remember awkwardly standing in a circle with these adults crying but trying not to cry. Finally the person we were waiting on walked in - my Aunt Karen. She hugged me and then someone else started dialing the phone and Pastor Rick said, "your dad needs to talk with you", and handed me the hotel phone receiver.

I wouldn't say that I was panicked in that moment. I already knew what all this was about. But the thing that panicked me the most was having all these people surrounding me while I talked with my dad - so I finally felt my fight-or-flight instincts kick me back to reality and I took the phone, jumped up off the bed I was sitting on, and went to the only private place in a small hotel room - the bathroom - and closed and locked the door behind me. Finally away from my audience and the sad eyes of well-meaning adults, I sat down on the edge of the bathtub, took a deep breath and said, "Hi, Dad, Mom is in heaven now isn't she?"

Someone knocked on the bathroom door. I ignored it. I remember hearing Kelly (the choir director's wife) say to "give her some space", God bless her! I guess I'm just a super private person, and I needed to have that conversation with my dad by myself. I appreciate that everyone wanted to support me in the way they thought I needed, but what I really needed at that moment was just to be alone. It felt very much like everyone was expecting me to be dramatic and pass out or start screaming or something, and while I might be known to be slightly dramatic at times, I've always been pretty calm during a crisis. After the phone call with my dad, I walked out of the bathroom and said, "excuse me", and I walked to the stairs to try and escape the stuffy tiny hotel room that was packed with way too many people. I do really appreciate that there were compassionate adults there that cared for me and my well-being. The support was appreciated, but I needed to be alone in that moment to process the news. Kelly was my hero that day because she saw and understood that I needed to be alone. She stood up for me in that moment, and advocated for MY needs.

Seagull flying free in the blue sky

Instead of flying home with my Aunt that afternoon, I decided to stay with the choir and finish out the tour which only had a couple of days left anyway. My Aunt stayed with me on the tour. On one of the hardest days of my life I also have some special memories of walking around Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills with my Aunt. I know most of the people there didn't understand my decision to stay. I think some probably thought that I was in shock, or didn't want to face reality. They might have been right in assuming that. But what they didn't know was the immense relief I felt when I finally heard the news. They didn't know or understand the literal weight that was lifted off my shoulders when I heard the words, "She's gone" from my dad. The worry and the pain of facing the inevitable, the trauma that I had already walked through from just 3 years old on to 17 years old. To have a lifetime of your greatest fears and worries come and stare you in the face to become your reality...and survive it? That is freedom. I knew that I would have a new pain to deal with when I got home, and I also knew that there was nothing for me to do at home if I did leave. I needed to take care of myself, I needed self preservation at that moment in time.

I was (am) the oldest of 5 kids. I helped take care of my mom in her last months and weeks and days on earth. Cancer sucks. Cancer destroys a person's ability and dignity to even use the restroom on their own. At 17 years old I, along with my brother, sister, dad and grandma - we were my mom's 24 hour hospice care givers. Hospice care has come a long way in the past 19 years, but that was too little too late for us back then. So yes, I stayed on the tour to finish it and to take care of myself before I had to face my new reality. I can say that my 36 year old self is so proud of my 17 year old self for realizing and understanding that I needed that. Maybe I should have gone home to be with my dad and siblings. But in order to be there for them, I needed to take care of myself first. I remember hearing whispers of conversations of "I could never stay on choir tour, she should go home, I would want to be with my family", and so on. I get it. I'm an odd duck. But I was also forced to grow up early and lived through things that my peers and most of the adults there never had to face.

Peaceful pink flower by the ocean, and blue sky

Dear youth leaders, here's the point I'm trying to convey. If you find yourself as an adult in charge of  kids while on a trip and the worst happens, and you need to be the bearer of bad news, please please please keep this story in mind. Realize that there is no good way to give bad news, but you can hold space for them.  

  • DO be supportive. DO be caring. DO give the person some space. DO be straight and to the point instead of beating around the bush.

  • DON'T have a huge group of people/adults standing around staring at the person. I think 3 or 4 people max is probably enough. It's awkward, and having a crowd makes the person feel like they're being stripped of their dignity and that their worst pain is just a raw wound for all to see. Give the person some privacy and space to process the information. 

  • DO break the news as soon as you know about it. It's a horrible feeling to know that everyone else in the room already knows what is coming, but you're still in the dark, even though it's YOUR news. I'm really not sure on the timeline for my own experience, and so maybe they did tell me as soon as they knew, but at the time it felt like everyone knew except for me.

  • Give Support, Give Space/Hold Space, Give Time to Process, Be Understanding of the Person's Needs

Hopefully you will never need these "tips", but if you do, please be mindful. Don't project what you think YOU would need on to the person receiving the bad news, but hold space for them in that moment. Allow them to figure out what they need. You can't make it better or somehow make the pain of reality less, as much as you might want to try. Deliver the news as soon as you receive it, don't tell everyone else before you've told the person who's news it is to receive. Just be supportive and let the person tell you what they need - and they will.

If you have questions or would like to continue the discussion, I'm happy to help in anyway I can.

Ocean beach with mild waves, sun shining behind clouds

My Mom, Evangeline Carole: April 14th, 1961 - July 15th, 1998

My Mother, my greatest will forever be remembered and loved. Thank you for teaching me how to give grace to others by showing me through your example. You lived your life full of love and perfection, even through your human side. You were the true example of a Proverbs 31 woman. I am forever grateful I had 17 years to learn from you, but I wish I had more time. Your granddaughters know who you are and who you were. You will live on and not be forgotten. The lessons you taught us have not been forgotten, and those lessons will be passed down. Your legacy of faithfulness is a goal to be worked towards. Thank you for your example of faith and grace and loving people. I love you mom! 


  1. Thank you for sharing this important insight! I love your candor, sense of self, honesty, and sensitivity. I work with your all the time. Many of them receive distressing news. Your write up confirms the space and TLC needed. You are a wonderful blessing Jaclyn! Your mom was very special! ~Laurie