Image showing two silhouetted figures having a phone conversation. The text overlay reads "I'm so sorry to give you this news over the phone"

Supporting healthcare professionals, care staff and families to communicate the death of a relative

These resources are free to access and share:

For Healthcare Professionals

For Care Staff

For Families


In this unprecedented pandemic one of the most emotionally difficult challenges facing healthcare workers and carers is communicating the death of a relative to families. The absence of face-to-face interactions means that staff must undertake this painful task by telephone. Telephone consultations deprive both parties of vital non-verbal signals which are essential to the formation and maintenance of human connectedness, and convey the other person’s level of understanding, emotional state and empathy. Crucially, current evidence shows that the quality of communication has a long-term impact on healthcare workers’ and families’ psychological and physical well-being, underlining the urgent need to ensure communication is effective.

Responding to these urgent needs, our team has developed a series of step-by-step guides and an animation for healthcare workers and care staff.  Crucially, these guides for staff include identifying if the person was a parent or grandparent, so that immediate advice can be offered to the family to help them with the unenviable task of sharing the news with children. This is supported by a second guide for parents and guardians which can be emailed to the family, or accessed online.

Communicating Difficult News about Health of a Child or Adolescent over the Phone

The pandemic has necessitated immediate changes in how healthcare is delivered. Our colleagues from paediatric oncology are now faced with giving test results such as diagnosis/relapse or changes to treatment on the phone rather than in person. Again, parents are then faced with conveying this life-changing information to their children at home, without the direct support of the oncology team so an accompanying guide to help them with this unenviable task has also been developed. 

These resources are free to access and share:

For Healthcare Professionals

Communicating Difficult News about a Child’s Health Over the Phone

For Families

Sharing the News from the Hospital with your Child

Guide for schools: Talking to children about illness and death during the pandemic

The team have developed a guide specifically for school staff, to whom children may turn to ask questions or share their experiences or worries about illness and bereavement during the last few months. 

This guide is freely available for download and distribution.

Importance of Communicating to Children

It is critical to highlight the importance of ensuring adult’s everyday communication with children reflects their developmental understanding and that adults are authentic about the uncertainty and psychological challenges of the pandemic. 

Please read our Comment in the The Lancet Child and Adolescent Health.

Please watch this Video made in collaboration with Blackpool Better Start based on our Comment for top tips of how to talk to young children about the Coronavirus.


All of this work draws on our well-established research and internationally recognised expertise in the communication of life-threatening illness and death to families and children. In 2019, we led a Lancet series (2019), including an international expert group which developed a framework for healthcare professionals supporting communication to families. This was facilitated by a comprehensive literature search of the evidence regarding; what works when communicating about life-threatening illness and death, how to impart this information, children’s developmental understanding of illness and death, and the impact of inadequate communication. 

Questions and Feedback

If you have any questions about the resources provided, or require different formats/language versions please get in touch with a member of the team. 


We would like to thank Dr Helen Griffiths, Dr Brenda Kelly, Dr Shaun Wilson, Dr Virginia Davies, Dr Sally Hope, Dr Matthew Hotton, Cecilia Hoegfeldt, Julia Ruiz Pozuelo and Suzy Shepherd for their support, contributions and insight.

 Generous funding for the animation was provided by Oxford Hospitals Charity

Our team

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