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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

Sorry For Your Loss

Before you go up to the door and knock on it, decide as a team which of you is going to make the actual notification, and who is there in a supportive role. By working as a team, you can more effectively help those you are notifying.

Take a deep breath, and say to yourself, "Be calm." If you are religious, offer a silent prayer for you, your partner, and the person(s) that you are about to notify, then knock on the door.

After knocking on the door, introduce yourselves and ask if they are the family you are supposed to notify. You want to be certain that these are the correct people to be contacting, the next of kin.

Then ask the resident being notified if you can enter their home. (Note: sometimes people won't invite you inside so you are left with no other option than talking to them through the door.). Once inside, if you can get the person(s) to sit down that is good, but not necessary. Because everyone is dumping so much adrenaline at this point, often people won't sit down until you tell them what is going on.

Ask as calmly as you can, and slowly while making good eye contact say, "Are you the parents of [Name]? I'm afraid that I have some very bad news for you..... (pause here momentarily to give those being notified a moment to psychologically prepare themselves). [Name] has been involved in a serious automobile accident, and he/she has died. (Pause) I'm so sorry. They did everything they could to save him/her."

Saying you are sorry expresses emotion, it makes you human. Continue to use the word "dead" or "died" throughout the ongoing conversation, and continue to use the victim's name. This helps those being notified come to the realization that their loved one has died.

Say the Word

Avoid using euphemisms. Don't say that their loved one has passed on....or "I know how you feel." Using dead or died is clear and to the point. When said with compassion, it is the best way to let someone know that a loved one is gone.

Avoid the "God clichés" such as "It was God's will" or "God never gives us more than we can handle." When we find ourselves reaching for these kinds of expressions, although well meaning, they are not generally helpful to those we are saying them to, and they often spring out of our nervous need to "say something."

Because of the life-altering bad news that we are sharing, it is important that we have the calm strength to "hold" what is often an emotional explosion. It is important to let them vent, and it is our job to ride it out with them, and to make sure that their reaction isn't a threat to themselves or others.

Remember to speak slowly, because in the midst of an adrenaline dump the people you're speaking with are not going to be thinking as clearly as they would under normal circumstances.

Maintain good eye contact. It's important for them to feel connected to you, for you are, in a very real sense, a lifeline to them in the midst of that critical incident.

CONTINUED: Bearing Bad News «   Page 2 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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