What To Say And What Not To Say To A Grieving Person


As a receptionist you will deal with the death of patients. It is often very sad when say a young patient dies, a teenager that had their life in front of them taken away, a parent leaving a young family behind, or the elderly patient that used to come in with cakes every week for everyone – we all have our favourite patients and their death no matter what age can often be very sad and have a big impact on many staff within the practice.

As a Practice are you the Receptionists made aware of patient that has recently died? Are you informed of such or do you just find out by chance.

It is important that you are giving such information as you often will be the first person that the grieving person will be talking to. How you handle that telephone call or face to face conversation will made a big impact on the grieving person.

For a new receptionist this could be the first time that they are faced with such an incident. At your practice do you have policies for such a delicate issue? Family members of the deceased will be coming into the surgery to pick up death certificates, and to perhaps see the doctor.

As a Receptionist how would you deal with this?

I asked new Receptionists this very question and some felt comfortable that they could approach the person and give them words of comfort. Others would often say “I would not know what to say” and “I would be afraid of saying the wrong thing so therefore would not say anything at all”

As a Receptionist you could be the first avenue of comfort to the grieving person. No longer are the excuses “I don’t know what to say” or I’m afraid of saying the wrong thing” acceptable. Some people might say “Ignorance is bliss” but when it comes to consoling the bereaved, ignorance is certainly not “bliss”

In your role as a Receptionist would you say something to the grieving person or would you not feel confident enough to say anything at all?

Often people want to say something to the grieving person but are unsure of what to say so will actually not say anything at all in fear of upsetting the person.

Remember, grieving the loss of a loved one is the worst pain that someone can endure. Be respectful and polite. Don’t discount anyone’s feelings. Even if someone puts on a brave face and looks like they are handling it well, don’t assume that the person is.

Show that you care.

Here are some suggestions at things that you could say to someone who is grieving

  • I am so sorry to hear of your loss.

Making an acknowledgement that you are aware of their loss will mean such a lot to the person. This often is the simplest and most effective thing to say. It also shows respect

  • You and your family are in my thoughts

Especially if you know other members of the family.

  • I can’t imagine how painful this must be for you

You can’t begin to know how this person is feeling, even if you have lost someone yourself in your life, everyone deals with grief and loss in different ways.

  • She/he was so nice – she/he will be missed by so many people.

If the person that has died was special to you or any of your team in any way – share that with the person – tell them how special they were, share a story if you have one like they used to bring you cakes in each week, or they always had a smile on their face when they came to the surgery. This will be a comfort to the person listening.

Here are some things that you should not say to someone who is grieving

  • Do not say – “I know how you feel”

Its simple  – you have no idea how they are feeling. Losses cannot be compared.

  • Do not say – “You’ll get through it – just be strong”

At this moment in time the one thing they do not feel is strong.

  • Do not  say – “don’t feel bad”

Of course they feel bad and it’s totally normal to do so.

  • Do not say – “I understand”

You cannot possible understand how that specific individual is handling their loss.

  • Do not say – “Time will heal all wounds”

Because for the grieving individual, imagining life without their loved one is, well, at that point unimaginable.

  • Do not tell the person how you would feel in their place

They just don’t want to hear it – or need to hear it. It’s not about you!

  • Do not say – At least they didn’t suffer (in the event of a sudden death)

It certainly didn’t make it easy on the person standing there in front of you and at that moment in time it is no comfort to them. They are still grieving their loss.

  • Do not say – He/she is in a better place

What they person would pick up from that message is – better than here with me!

The common thread in the statements above (and many more like them) is that while most may be said in an attempt to comfort, absolutely none of these statements will console anyone.

As Receptionists I am sure that you are compassionate and you do deal with the bereaved in a professional manner. But it is important that when any new Receptionist starting at your Practice has appropriate training in this very delicate matter and that they get it right.

And most important if the grieving person does not want to share, then you should respect their wishes and give them some space. You have done your best to show your respect for their loss.

Other posts in this subject

The Forgotten Appointment


I recent wrote a blog on following up test results.

Who Is Responsible For Following Up Test Results http://wp.me/p1zPRQ-nS

Here is an example of such a scenario – where the patient had to chase up an appointment.

A friend of mine has to have a yearly MRI. It was detected 2 years ago that she has a cyst on her pancreas – although the consultant was not alarmed in any way, and felt it was indeed just a cyst he wanted it monitored first every 6 months and then at her last appointment last January he said that she could go to yearly checks.

She saw the consultant last October who again confirmed that the MRI would be done in January. The MRI appointment in the past has always come through approximately 6 weeks before the date.

She was getting concerned as by the end of December she had not got her appointment through.

After the Christmas break she phone the consultants secretary and got her answer phone. She tried for several days getting the same message.

The message said:

“This is Mr ****** office. There will be someone here between 8.30 – 1.30 Monday to Friday. There is no facility to leave a message on this telephone.

She was actually phoning within these hours – and tried every day – and the same message was given every single time.

The secretary obviously was on extended holiday – but did not ensure that the correct message was put on the machine. My friend had no idea when she would return, and had to keep trying on a daily basis until she got a reply.

When she finally got a reply she explained about not having an appointment for the MRI. The secretary looked on her notes – and then said the dreaded phase “I can’t see you booked for one – there is nothing in your notes”

My friend had to go through the how scenario about having to have yearly MRI’s that she had spoken to the consultant last January and the October who said that he would get the MRI appointment sorted. The secretary looked back at her notes and confirmed that indeed she had in fact had several MRI’s already and that she would look into it.

There was no apology about the mistake. You should always apologise and tell the patient you will get it sorted immediately. More importantly get back to the patient as soon as you can with the apporpriate answer.

That was 2 weeks ago and she has heard nothing. She doesn’t know if the secretary has in fact spoken to the consultant, if an appointment has been made, and if so how long she has to wait – as in previous appointments one MRI has been booked directly after the previous one. She could be waiting months for another MRI appointment.

If my friend had not chased up her appointment it would never had been made – how many people would have just “left” it thinking the appointment would come through. My friend is obviously concerned as this appointment as it is fairly important – and is worrying for her.

From a Managers point of view this is pretty bad patient service. I understand you cannot get back to every single enquiry that you receive, but certainly if one of these enquiries is due to a fault of your surgery, hospital or department the important thing you should do is follow-up the mistake, make the appropriate appointments and get back to the patient with the details and an apology that it happened in the first place.

My friend received nothing, no appointment, no communication, and certainly no apology.

She is now going to have to phone again, perhaps having to explain it to yet another secretary, and feels that she might in fact “annoy” them for phoning again, I have ensured her that it is important to phone, she should not have to be made to feel guilty about phoning for something that was not her fault in the first place.

This is one example of following up test results or  appointments if you hear nothing back. Mistakes do happen – it’s how you handle them that can resolve a difficult situation.

If you have a patient that mentions that they have not heard about a hospital appointment that they have been referred to from your Surgery  – ask them to check with the hospital.

I appreciate that mistakes do get made – its how you handle them and get the situation rectified is the key.

And one last thing – make sure the message you give on your answer phone is the right one!

And to add insult this was actually a private consultant she was seeing – so not only handled badly she is paying for the service too.

The Lost Faxes

When a patient is suspected of having cancer it is vital that the correct procedures are met to ensure that they are seen by the correct consultant / healthcare professional.

Every possible action will be taken to ensure that the referral letter will get to the consultant / healthcare professional at the hospital concerned as soon as it possibly can. Surgeries will have their own protocol of dealing with this situations.

Let me share a story on a referral letter that was never received at the hospital.


True Story

It was 6.00 on a Friday evening – the doctor had a patient in with him who he suspected had a mass – possible cancer. It was too late to phone through to the consultant’s secretary for an appointment and too late for a letter go out in the post that same evening – so the procedure was the doctor had to fax the letter through – something that was done on several occasions.

All of the receptionists knew the procedure.

The fax went – and the letter format went on the Monday in the normal post. Tuesday there was a call from the hospital asking why they letter had not been in fact faxed through on the Friday – the Doctor said it was – but the hospital said they had no record of receiving it.

I was asked to investigate what had actually happened.

I went and spoke to the receptionist that sent the fax. She was obviously concerned and upset that I had to speak to her about the incident – to her it looked like I was accusing her of not sending the fax – I soon put her fears at ease and explained that I had to find out what had actually happened.

This was one of those moments where I was pleased that we kept a printed receipt of every fax sent and this was attached to the fax and filed. We found the letter and the receipt was attached that confirmed that the fax as indeed sent – and no errors had occurred whilst it was sent.

I telephoned the hospital – they were adamant that they had never received it. We had the “proof” that the fax was indeed sent from our office. But the still said they had not received it.

I am pleased to say the patient was not put at any extra risk and was seen within the allocated timescale.

Some weeks later I received a similar call from the hospital – they were waiting on a fax coming through and they had not received it. I checked again with Reception that they had sent it and they had all the confirmation that the fax had been sent. This happened for a 3rd time and I started getting concerned. Something was not right.

The faxes had been sent by 3 different receptionists – all very competent receptionists I might add and ones that took pride in their work. All of the receptionists were long serving receptionists and had been at the surgery for some years. Each and every one of them was concerned about the incidents that had taken place.

I went along to see the supervisor at the outpatients department where the faxes were going. She I was as concerned as I was about what was happening. This is where I found it very useful to have a good working relationship with the hospital because I felt that I could go along and chat to the supervisor about the incident – at the end of the day we wanted to get this matter sorted out and make sure that it didn’t happen again. After all we both wanted the best possible outcome for the patient.

(see my blog on Communication between the Surgery and the Hospital. http://wp.me/p1zPRQ-mT )

I asked her if we were the only surgery that this was happening with – she told me it was – they made me feel that for whatever reason the error was happening at our end – but I could not for the life of me work out WHY. Each fax had been sent and the receipt of that fax kept and attached to the fax sent – we got a print out from the fax machine to back that up and it confirmed that the faxes had in fact been sent.

So, I went back to the surgery. One by one I asked each of the receptionists to send a text fax through to the supervisor at the outpatients department – who was waiting at the other end for them.

After the third fax had been sent I phoned the supervisor – she said that they had not come through – she confirmed that they had received many others from other surgeries in the time I was with the girls sending ours. I was baffled. I had actually witnessed the faxes being sent through.

I called another receptionist in – I asked her to send the same test fax – she did and I straight away got a phone call from the supervisor to confirm she had received the test fax.

Then it dawned on me – I knew what was happening……………………….

We had recently had a new fax machine installed in the surgery. The old fax machine used to send faxes face down – this new fax machine sent faxes face up! Such a simple error to make but such a bit impact when it did.

They were actually sending blank pages through to the hospital as they were sending them upside down.

I telephoned and spoke to the Supervisor – I explained what had happened – she went into the fax office (the fax machine was in an office on its own and secretaries and administrators would pop in every so often to take the faxes off the machine) The supervisor confirmed there was in fact 3 blank sheets amongst all the other faxes waiting to be sorted. She agreed that the secretaries or administrators would have just thought they were blank pages that had just come through with other faxes.

So a simple thing like a new fax machine caused so many problems. The receptionists were mortified that they had made the mistakes – but said they were so used to using the old fax machine at times when they were so busy they just put them through as they would have normally.

So, I put a big notice over the fax machine that said

~Pease send fax facing UP!

A reminder email was sent out to everyone in the surgery including Doctors/Nurses/District Nurses/Health Visitors and other healthcare professionals who all at times used the fax machine.

That seemed to do the trick thank goodness. No more episodes of blank faxes.

So never take it for granted that a new member of staff can send a fax – always make sure that you run through the procedure with them – just in case!

I must admit I have never been a fan of fax machines!