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Bearing Bad News

Telling someone that a loved one won't be coming home is never easy, but you need to learn to handle it like a professional.

September 07, 2010  |  by Greg Young


Two police officers are given the difficult task of making a death notification. A young man was killed in an automobile crash several miles away in another jurisdiction.

The officers grab the teletype sent to them from the neighboring police department where the accident took place, read the information and the address of the boy's parents, the next of kin that they are about to notify, and head out together.

It's 2:30 a.m., dark, and the officers are concentrating on reading house numbers to make sure that they stop at the correct address. They get out of the squad car and walk up to the front door of the boy's parents. One of the officers knocks. After a while a woman, presumably the boy's mother, answers the door.

Seeing two officers standing on the front porch at 2:30 in the morning is not a good sign. The woman asks the officers, "What's wrong?" "What happened?" At about this point the two officers look at each other, and they both suddenly realize that they haven't discussed with each other which of them was going to actually make the notification.

Thankless Task

Making death notifications is among the most difficult duties that an officer is asked to perform. It's difficult because what you are about to tell those being notified will turn their world upside down and can create an emotional firestorm.

Those of us who are called upon to make death notifications know that we really only get one opportunity to get it right, and often the next of kin that we are notifying will remember very specific things about us. They will remember the way we said the dreaded words, the way we looked, and how caring and compassionate we seemed to be...or not be.

Show Compassion

Because making death notifications is such an important task, I would like to share what I have learned from personal experience, research, and having talked to many officers that I have had the privilege of working with and or training.

First, not everyone is suited to making death notifications. If an officer has just gone through something difficult and emotionally draining in his or her own life, making a notification now would not be a good thing. Empathy comes much easier for some officers than for others. If you are in a supervisory role, it's a good idea to keep in mind those on your shift in your department who seem to have empathy and use them for this thankless task.

Whenever possible, go and speak with the loved ones in person, don't just call. There are those unfortunate scenarios that make a personal notification next to impossible but because we don't know the health condition or the mental state of those we contact, generally it is best to make the notification in person. It's also a good idea to give your local EMS people a "heads-up" that you are about to make a death notification and they could be called upon if needed.

Make the notification as soon as possible following the incident. Making a personal notification is always a race against time, and it's far better that they hear it from you, in person, rather than finding out on the news or through the grapevine that their loved one has died.

Go out in twos. Generally speaking if you go out to make a notification in a team of two, you can both complement each other and watch out for each other.

If your department has a chaplain that you are comfortable working with, send him or her out with an officer to help with the notification. It's also a good practice for both people doing the notification to drive separate cars in case one of the officers gets called to respond to another incident.

Having someone stay with those notified until other family, friends, or clergy arrive is also important. You never want to leave a person you've just notified alone. People have had heart attacks, fainted, had strokes, and even died upon hearing that their loved one has died.

CONTINUED: Bearing Bad News «   Page 1 of 3   »

Tags: Death Notifications, Verbal Communication


Comments (2)

Displaying 1 - 2 of 2

Bob @ 2/17/2012 11:16 AM

This is, as stated, one of the toughest jobs for some officers, no matter how much time and experience they have on the job or cases done. It is one reason why a lot of departments have Police Chaplains to go with the officer and handle the notification and counseling or being of assistance after the officer needs to go.

Training in CISM or CIT also helps one to prepare to deal with the many emotional areas of stress that a death, sudden or natural, brings and for which officers usually do not have training to handle.

Nils Friberg @ 3/20/2012 2:02 PM

Chaplain Young has done an excellent job writing this article. As a 25-year chaplain vet, the only addition I would make is that if a chaplain accompanies the officer (as should happen), the chaplain is probably the best one to break the news, and the officer is the one who fills in the details of what happened. Give the party only as much as they ask for in small "bites" because, as Young says, people in crisis can only absorb so much. Take your time! I'm strongly in favor of officer/chaplain teams for this purpose. They compliment each other in important ways.

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