How to write about difficult or painful issues

Knowing what and how to write when someone has died, is terminally ill, and other very sensitive and often painful circumstances is never easy. In this curated selection of articles from here on HTWB, I have pulled together some of the most up-to-date ones to help you with such subjects, for you to bookmark if you’d like to.

How to write well about difficult or painful issues

Knowing how to write sensitively to someone going through bad times is a very important part of your relationship with that person.

You never know when things like this will happen, and when they do you may find the assistance very useful.

Click on the sub-headings to go to each individual article.

How to write to someone who is dying

Many people feel it’s more distressing to write to someone who is dying, than it is to write to his or her relatives after death comes. To begin with, you’re addressing the person who has a life-limiting condition – not a relative who is faced with the blunt, but one-step removed reality of death. Then, you need to understand how this person is dealing with his or her terminal illness; and that isn’t always in the way you might assume.

Of course, there are no definitive answers.

The best I can do – and that’s not just as a writer but also as someone who has faced cancer twice in person, and been full time carer to a close relative who was terminal and died after just under a year from diagnosis – is to make some suggestions. Here they are. It’s quite a long article, but then it’s a very, very, long topic.

How to write a death announcement

When you’ve just lost a loved one, it can be very hard to find the courage to write an announcement of their death for the newspapers, and other public media. But announce it you must, so friends, colleagues, associates and more distant family will know of your loss and what the funeral arrangements are, so they can come and pay their respects.

In most industrialised countries there is a set format for death announcements

All you need to do is to look in the publication you’re going to use, and copy the formats you see in their death announcement pages.

Of course, if you’re using professional funeral directors, they will guide you on how to phrase your announcement according to how they find other people in your area tend to word them. n the meantime though, here are some suggestions you may find appropriate.

What to write when someone has died

The original article in this series. It offers basic advice on how to react when writing to someone who recently has been bereaved. See below.

How to write a letter of sympathy when someone dies

It’s more than 4 years since I last wrote about this sad topic – “What to write when someone has died” – which has become the most widely read article on HTWB.

And in that time, some ways of communicating our sympathies have changed.

That’s because the media we can use today have expanded way beyond paper, cards, pens and even basic emails.

Not only do social media death announcements of close friends and associates shock and upset us, but also they make us wonder how best to convey our sympathies and condolences. In this article I have shared some ideas on how you can adapt the basic approaches to the sharper, shorter context of comments and posts in the social media.

How to write a eulogy

Although many people believe that a eulogy should be a lasciviously praising speech about how wonderful the deceased was, it doesn’t have to be.

In fact such schmaltzy nonsense is likely to be highly inappropriate for the majority of people, whether dead or alive.

In this article I set out some ways to approach this task, hopefully making it easier to write and also easier to say or read at the funeral for which it is written.

How to write an obituary

When you lose someone close to you – particularly if he or she was a known figure in your community and/or beyond – you may be asked to write an obituary. This is not the same as a death announcement.

An obituary is a longer piece of writing that summarises your loved one’s life and achievements, as a tribute to them.

The content of the obituary can range from a formal list of the person’s life achievements, to a more relaxed and even humorous view of the deceased’s life and times.

The article below is an example of a more informal obituary I wrote for my close friend and writer colleague Sam Worthington, whose article How to write a restaurant review is the second most widely read article on HTWB.

How to write well about difficult or painful issues

Sam Worthington’s book on how to write restaurant reviews, which grew out of his article here on HTWB. I’m hoping to resurrect this as an eBook, with proceeds going to Sam’s family.

Another RIP – to author, bon viveur and good friend Sam Worthington

As mentioned above, this is an example of an informal obituary and here are the first few lines…

Today we heard that the blogger, author and one of my oldest friends Sam Worthington (no, not the actor – the original one) sadly passed away on November 11th in Angeles City, Philippines.

His article, “How To Write A Restaurant Review” published here on HTWB back in 2011 has had nearly 20,000 reads. And so it should.

Cancer: what to write to someone who has it

When we find out a friend or relative has cancer and we want to drop them a line to show how much we care and support them, it’s essential to realise that it’s a very sensitive time, and you  need to recognise a number of key points to help you write.

In this article I make clear what the majority of cancer patients find comforting, as well as topics and approaches that are not necessarily appropriate. UPDATE Nov 2018 – this article goes into detail about what NOT to write to someone with cancer.

This information is based on my own experience of having had cancer twice already (unrelated).

It also comes from Chairing a partnership of cancer patients, care-givers and clinical professionals in my home town here in the UK, in which I have  been involved since 2008.

Writing about cancer: help, humour or hindrance?

Some people may think that writing about cancer – particularly your own cancer and funny things that have happened to you along your cancer journey – is a selfish exercise that allows you to vent about your own pain, fear and issues.

Yes, of course: it is. And damned right that you should do it, too. Why?

By sharing your humour, you can help some other people (not all) who are going through cancer treatment.

Writing about your own experiences enables other cancer patients (and carers) to identify with you and share your knowledge through empathy, with you and everyone else going through the same things.

Naturally enough, not everyone finds humour therapeutic. In this article I share the pros and cons to help you decide. Also see Cancer: what to write to someone who has it” above.

How do I thank the family of my kidney donor?

This article arose from a question I received from a reader, and really made me think.

I could only advise here on the basis of what would be helpful for me, knowing that a deceased relative of mine had enabled someone to live on through his or her donation of a kidney. But for what it’s worth here are a few things I would consider writing about.

Obviously it almost goes without saying that the very gift of life, in itself, is miraculous and of course you should thank the family for that. 

However if you want to make it more specific, envisage how that family would be thinking on about the future had their loved one lived. This article offers some suggestions.

What to write when someone has lost their job

Losing your livelihood is very close to the feeling of bereavement for most people. Not only is there the fear of the unknown and a sharp drop in available money to worry about: there is also the hurt to personal pride and self-esteem.

In writing an email or message to a friend who has just lost their job, it’s very easy to make them feel worse – not better.

That’s because despite our natural instinct to want to cheer them up and think positively, isn’t necessarily the right thing to do at the time. In this article I share some ideas to help you help someone else, with the right words at the right time.

What to write when someone gets divorced

There’s no doubt that divorce is another of life’s dramas that are extremely stressful. But it isn’t always a personal tragedy for the people concerned. In fact for one party, anyway, it can be a blessed relief along with all the mid-slinging, guilt, arguments, despair and heartache.

In this article I share some ideas on what to write in a note to a friend or family member, so they feel supported in a positive yet sensitive way.

What to write to someone whose relationship just broke up

Some people might think that to advise on what to write when a relationship breaks up is quite a different ballgame from the seriousness of bereavement, serious and possibly terminal illness, and more along those lines. Bear in mind, too, that the issues surrounding a relationship that’s less formalised than marriage are not necessarily easier to handle – probably just different.

But when this happens – as most of us know – it can be almost as traumatic an experience as a bereavement.

In this article I look at some of the permutations of this sad experience, and how you might react to those if they should happen to someone close to you.

I hope these articles may be useful for you if you are unfortunate enough to need them.

In the meantime if you have any questions on what and how to write better when dealing with highly sensitive and painful issues, please jot them down in the comments or send them to me privately at




  1. Her BFF Sarah was killed a thousand miles away, by a drunk driver. She could not get to the funeral. Say to her…

    “Knock knock…c’mon, knock knock.

    It’s me, Manny…you know, E-MAN-U-EL?

    Listen. I have to go with those soldiers over there but before I go, I need to ask you a favor. Would you take care of my friend for me? Take her into your heart. Love her like your own sister. Visit her every chance you get, have dinner with her, go shopping with her. Enjoy every moment with her and miss her when you can’t be with her.

    Will you do that for me?

    I will be back for her soon. Oh, so soon!

    Could you do that for me, please? Thank you so much.

    Gotta go now.

    Oh, by the way, her name is Sarah.”