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The first time: comforting grieving relatives


Speaking to a relative about death can be difficult but that doesn’t mean you should avoid it altogether. Sometimes a conversation with an ‘outsider’ can provide real comfort to those who are grieving

Throughout your career as a nurse you will witness many deaths and need to speak to those whose close family and friends have died. Bringing up the subject of death can feel intrusive and you may be wary of causing more upset. But there are ways to talk about death that can make it easier for you, and the person you’re speaking to.

Hilary Fisher, director of the Dying Matters Coalition said:”Every minute someone in the UK dies, but many people - including nurses - are still not confident in talking openly about dying and death and are unsure how to approach the issue. This has a major impact not only on people who are dying but on their families and friends. By talking more openly about dying and death we are far more likely to be able to enjoy life.”

How death affects us

Someone who is grieving may experience the following emotions:1

  • Shock: Sometimes it can be very hard to grasp the reality of what has happened. Shock can make you feel numb and disorientated, as if what’s happening isn’t real.
  • Pain: This can be mental and physical and can feel overwhelming and frightening.
  • Anger: Death can seem cruel and unfair, especially if someone has died before their time. Some people feel very angry when someone they cared for has died.
  • Guilt: This may involve things someone feels they should have said, or things they feel they should have done differently.
  • Depression: After a death it can feel that life is not worth living.
  • Longing: Hearing or seeing the person who has died can be quite common after a death.

You may also experience a mixture of these feelings yourself, even if you did not know the person who has died very well. Give yourself time to come to terms with the situation and seek help from your mentor if you feel that you’re not coping well.

How to speak to someone about a death

It’s not always about a long conversation, often a short acknowledgement of the death and knowing someone is there who cares and will listen is all that is needed. Some people find it easier to talk to a relative ‘stranger’ about their intense emotions surrounding a death, rather than a close family member or friend. 

Starting up:2,3

  • Acknowledge the situation: To help ease you into a conversation it can help to acknowledge what is happening e.g. “I know that talking about these things is never easy ..”
  • Watch out for prompts: Someone may want to talk about death and may bring it up with you in a round-about way, so look out for signs that someone wants to talk.
  • Make yourself available: It may be a case of letting someone know that you’re available if they need you. Don’t be offended if someone turns down your offer to talk, everyone is unique and some people may not want to talk at all. 


  • Avoid making assumptions: Telling someone how they ‘should’ be feeling may not help to encourage them to speak about their experiences. Everyone reacts differently to death.
  • Avoid clichés: Saying general things like ‘time is a great healer’ can make someone feel like you’re not really listening to how they feel as a unique individual.
  • Offer a non-judgemental environment. Saying how ‘strong’ someone is being may force them to put on a front, and not share their true feelings. Offer a relaxing space where the person feels free to react however they want, whether this is laughing or crying.

Talking about death can seem a daunting task, that many would prefer to avoid, but it’s worth it. “Relatives can gain a great deal of support and strength from having people there to talk to or listen, and it can also help them to come to terms with the death of someone close to them,” says Ms Fisher. “Student nurses can also gain a lot, not only by knowing they are able to support family members but also by gaining a much greater understanding of how to communicate when discussing emotive and sensitive issues around dying and death.”


  1. About Grief. Cruse Bereavement Care. Visited 28 March 2011.
  2. Talking about dying. Dying Matters. Visited 28 March 2011.  
  3. How can you help people suffering from bereavement? Cruse Bereavement Care. Visited 28 March 2011.

Readers' comments (2)

  • Adam Roxby

    While I have had a lot of contact with death and dying during my time as a Healthcare Assistant I haven't yet had any interaction as a student.

    I don't know if others feel the same, but I would be unsure of what role I would play in the process as this stage of my studies.

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • I also agree that it is one of those things that you don't really get encouraged to do as a student, as the trained staff tend to do it. Trouble is then you suddenly qualify and are expected to do it well.

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