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Thoughtless Questions: How Did He/She Die?

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A few years ago, my older sister died. Although I have dealt with death a few times within my family, this first death within my nuclear family has granted me greater awareness of the many challenges survivors face after a loved one dies. One of the most significant challenges is dealing with the many questions people ask after a life ends. The people who ask these questions don't have bad intentions yet the questions they ask are thoughtless.

One such question is: How did she/he die? 

My hope in writing this article is to share why you should avoid asking this question, why I believe people ask this question, and, for those who want to show support to survivors, provide alternative talking points. 

First, I want to share part of my story. I am currently 43 years old. A few years ago, my older sister died. As you can imagine, it wasn't expected. It was a tragedy in every sense of the word. Unexpected, terrible, and shocking, are all words I could use to describe the events that took place. What made it worse was that when it came to understanding what had happened, my family was, and is, still somewhat in the dark. There are many unanswered questions. Even as I write this, two years later, I feel pain and anger. This only happens during the moments I choose to enter into that place. 

One of the most common questions people asked me immediately after her death, and still today, is how did she die? If someone died in a clear-cut way -- they got old, they had cancer, they had a heart attack -- this question is easy enough to answer. That doesn't make it less painful, but it's a question with a clear answer. You can answer and move on. But what if you ask the question, and the answer isn't so clear-cut? What if someone chose to die by suicide, or if there are factors about the hours leading up to the person's death that are unclear? This question opens up great pain. You may be asking them to explain something they don't themselves understand yet. People ask this question thoughtlessly, as if it's a "fair question," when it's not. It might be a natural thing that you are curious about, but that doesn't mean you have a right to ask it. If you truly want to support someone, you might ask yourself, do I have a right to ask this question?

Although you may think it's a good and natural way to talk to someone who has just suffered a loss, the cause of someone's death isn't truly relevant. Whatever the reason, the person is now dead. The exact details of how it happened aren't truly the issue. We are hurting because the person is gone. A person we loved, valued, and cared for is no longer around. Even if we haven't seen them for years, it is upsetting that a life we valued is no longer there. In these moments, we look for answers. But it may not be the best idea to seek those answers from the people who are closest to the departed. 

Why do people ask this question? 
1. You are curious. People love a good tragedy. It's like a car accident, and you can't help but slow down as you drive past to see what befell a fellow human being. 
2. You want to know if it could happen to you. One of the best ways to avoid accidents or early death is to be aware of all the dangers in the world and try to avoid them. Of course, tragedy can befall anyone at any time, but it doesn't hurt to be on the guard. 
3. You want to know if their death is similar to one you have already endured. We all look for kindred spirits -- those souls that go through an experience similar to ours. Maybe then, we can find someone who can understand what we have endured. 

Notice that none of these reason have anything to do with supporting the grieving. They are all inherently about self-interest or curiosity and have nothing to do with being a good friend to someone dealing with an immediate tragedy or trauma.

What does someone experience when you ask them this question? 
When you ask someone this question, especially right after the death has happened, please realize that they have been asked this question numerous times. Now, let's say they decide to share with you. If the story is longer than a simple answer -- to repeat, something like cancer, old age, or a heart attack -- often you get one of two responses. As you begin to share a complicated and painful story, the listener either begins to feel bad for you or realize, "Oh crap, this is more than I needed/wanted to know. Now I feel uncomfortable, and I'm not sure what to say." Which often leads to you, the person who is supposed to be comforted, in the awkward place of comforting a person who has asked you for this information.

Now ask yourself, do I really want to know how they died? Am I prepared to support this person in front of me, no matter what they say? Am I prepared to hold them and the weight of their grief. If not, don't ask. If they do decide to share, accept the share as a gift. People who share their pain, grief, and stories with you do it at a cost to themselves. It is the highest honor for someone to share their story with you. 

Who (if anyone) has the right to ask this question? 
Only people who are as close or closer to the loved one as you. I truly believe this is a question best left unasked. If your friend wants to share this with you, they will do so in their own time. Even if you knew them yourself, don't ask this question, unless you are in the same level of closeness. 

What can I ask or say instead? 
I'm so sorry you lost (your family member/sister/brother/parent/partner/friend). 
  • I would love to hear more about them. 
  • What would you like to tell me about them? 
  • What will you miss the most about them? 
  • What's your favorite memory about them? 
  • I have some great memories about X. Would you like to hear some of them? 
  • One of the things I remember most of them/will miss the most is . . . 
  • I remember the time they were there for me when . . . 
If you truly feel like you want to know for a better reason than curiosity, I would recommend you ask in this way: "I really cared for Bill. Part of me really wants to know how this happened. Would you be willing to share that with me? I know it can be painful to talk about, but I would like to hear anything you want to tell me." 

You can see that not just anyone would use this dialogue. 

If people stopped asking this question, it would open up opportunities to better support someone. I remember at the funeral having multiple people ask me this question, and each time, I would gritted my teeth and wanted to scream. I recommend you avoid asking this question in the future and look for better ways to support your friend going through this terrible time. 


gRegor said…
Thanks for sharing some really good guidance here.
Anonymous said…
Brilliant. Best article. I've been asked this question hundreds of times by people I barely know. Most intrusive and insensitive. You do relive your emotions. I have never been asked your example questions of the better approach. Initially I had people asking via text how he died. So basically I'm dealing with overwhelming grief and you would like me to sit down and type you a detailed explanation for your information. How is this helpful on any level? I said, I'm sorry, I don't put my personal business online. Even via text. The point is, the bereaved now needs to do all the work to keep you safe and sound so you don't need to suffer though the awkwardness of making a phone call or sending a card, note, or flowers. One so called friend simply sent a sad face. WTH? That took effort. Enough said. Enjoyed your article. Ty.