Death notification is acknowledged to be one of the most difficult tasks faced by law enforcement officers and other professionals, because learning of the death of a loved one often is the most traumatic event in a person’s life. The moment of notification is one that most people remember very vividly for the rest of their life — sometimes with pain and anger.
Basic Death Notification Procedures
These are some of the cardinal principles of death notification. Some of the points overlap, and all will be refined by the notifier’s experience and judgment.
- Always make death notification in person — not by telephone.
- It is very important to provide the survivor with a human presence or “presence of compassion” during an extremely stressful time. Notifiers who are present can help if the survivor has a dangerous shock reaction — which is not at all uncommon — and they can help the survivor move through this most difficult moment.
- Arrange notification in person even if the survivor lives far away.
- Contact a medical examiner or law enforcement department in the survivor’s home area to deliver the notification in person.
- Never take death information over the police radio.
- Get the information over the telephone, or it might leak out to family through the media or private parties listening to police radio. If radio dispatchers start to give information over the radio, stop them and call in.
“In Time” — and with certainty
- Provide notification as soon as possible — but be absolutely sure, first, that there is positive identification of the victim. Notify next of kin and others who live in the same household, including roommates and unmarried partners.
- Too many survivors are devastated by learning of the death of a loved one from the media. Mistaken death notifications also have caused enormous trauma.
- Before the notification, move quickly to gather information.
- Be sure of the victim’s identity. Determine the deceased person’s next of kin and gather critical information — obtain as much detail as possible about the circumstances of the death, about health considerations concerning the survivors to be notified, and whether other people are likely to be present at the notification.
- Always try to have two people present to make the notification.
- Ideally, the persons would be a law enforcement officer, in uniform, and the medical examiner or other civilian such as a chaplain, victim service counselor, family doctor, clergy person, or close friend. A female/male team often is advantageous.
- lt is important to have two notifiers. Survivors may experience severe emotional or physical reactions. (Some even strike out at notifiers.) There may be several survivors present. Notifiers can also support one another before and after the notification.
- Take separate vehicles if possible.
- The team never knows what they will encounter at the location. One might need to take a survivor in shock to a hospital while the other remains with others.
- (Shock is a medical emergency.) One notifier may be able to stay longer to help contact other family or friends for support. Having two vehicles gives notifiers maximum flexibility.
- Plan the notification procedure.
- Before they arrive, the notifier team should decide who will speak, what will be said, how much can be said.
“In Plain Language”
- Notifiers should clearly identify themselves, present their credentials and ask to come in.
- Do not make the notification at the doorstep. Ask to move inside, and get the survivor seated in the privacy of the home. Be sure you are speaking to the right person. You may offer to tell children separately if that is desired by adult survivors.
- Relate the message directly and in plain language.
- Survivors usually are served best by telling them directly what happened. The presence of the team already has alerted them of a problem.
- Inform the survivor of the death, speaking slowly and carefully giving any details that are available. Then, calmly answer any questions the survivor may have.
Begin by saying, “I have some very bad news to tell you,” or a similar statement. This gives the survivor an important moment to prepare for the shock.
Then, avoid vague expressions such as “Sally was lost” or “passed away.” Examples of plain language include: “Your daughter was in a car crash and she was killed.” “Your husband was shot today and he died.” “Your father had a heart
attack at his work place and he died.”
Call the victim by name — rather than “the body.”
Patiently answer any questions about the cause of death, the location of the deceased’s body, how the deceased’s body will be released and transported to a funeral home, and whether an autopsy will be performed. If you don’t know the answer to a question, don’t be afraid to say so. Offer to get back to the survivor when more information is available, and be sure to follow through.
There are few consoling words that survivors find helpful — but it is always appropriate to say, “I am sorry this happened.”
- Remember: Your presence and compassion are the most important resources you bring to death notification.
- Accept the survivor’s emotions and your own. It is better to let a tear fall than to appear cold and unfeeling. Never try to “talk survivors out of their grief” or offer false hope. Be careful not to impose your own religious beliefs.
- Many survivors have reported later that statements like these were not helpful to them: “It was God’s will,” “She led a full life,” and “I understand what you are going through” (unless the notifier indeed had a similar experience.)
- Plan to take time to provide information, support, and direction. Never simply notify and leave.
- Do not take a victim’s personal items with you at the time of notification.
- Survivors often need time, even days, before accepting the victim’s belongings. Eventually, survivors will want all items, however. (A victim’s belongings should never be delivered in a trash bag.) Tell survivors how to recover items if they are in the custody of law enforcement officials.
- Give survivors helpful guidance and direction
- Survivors bear the burden of inevitable responsibilities. You can help them begin to move through the mourning and grieving process by providing immediate direction in dealing with the death.
- Offer to call a friend or family member who will come to support the survivor — and stay until the support person arrives.
- Offer to help contact others who must be notified (until a support person arrives to help with this duty.)
- Survivors may have a hard time remembering what is done and said, so write down for them the names of all who are contacted.
- Inform the survivor of any chance to view the deceased’s body.
- Be available to transport the survivor or representative for identification of the victim, if necessary. Explain the condition of the deceased’s body and any restrictions on contact that may apply if there are forensic concerns. If appropriate, explain that an autopsy will be done.
- Viewing the deceased’s body should be the survivor’s choice. Providing accurate information in advance will help a survivor make that decision. Some survivors will choose to see the body immediately, and this should be allowed if possible.
- (Denying access to see the body is not an act of kindness.)
Provide other specific information. Take a copy of the “Community Resource Information”
- form, fill it out, and leave it with the survivor. [See copy of form at end of this booklet.] Fill out and keep the “Survivor Intake Form.” [See copy of form at end of this booklet.]
- This form records basic information about survivors and their wishes. Complete the form, sign it, and keep it with the report or investigation file.
- Always leave a name and phone number with survivors.
Plan to make a follow-up contact with the survivor the next day.
- If the death occurred in another county or state, leave the name and phone number of a contact person at that location.
- Most survivors are confused and some might feel abandoned after the initial notification. Many will want clarifications or may need more direction on arrangements that are necessary.
- Following up can be the last step in completing a “person-centered” and sensitive death notification that is truly helpful to survivors.
- The notification team should be sure they are clear on any follow-up assignments they need to carry out. (See also the discussion of “debriefing” notifiers, on page 8.)
- Death Notification in the Work Place
- Survivors often must be notified at their work place. Here are several tips to help apply the basic principles described above to a work place notification.
- Ask to speak to the manager or supervisor, and ask if the person to be notified is available. It is not necessary to divulge any details regarding the purpose of your visit.
- Ask the manager or supervisor to arrange for a private room in which to make the notification.
- Follow the basic notification procedures described above: in person, in time, in pairs, in plain language, with compassion.
- Allow the survivor time to react and offer your support.
- Transport the survivor to his or her home, or to identify the body, if necessary.
- Let the survivor determine what he or she wishes to tell the manager or supervisor regarding the death. Offer to notify the supervisor, if that is what the survivor prefers.
Special Credit for this show given to:
‘In Person, In Time”
Recommended Procedures for Death Notification
The principles of death notification: In person
in plain language,
and with compassion.
Dr.Thomas L. Bennett, State Medical Examiner, the Iowa Organization for Victim Assistance (IOVA), MADD/Polk County Chapter, and
Polk County Victim Services
Crime Victim Assistance Division Iowa Department of Justice
Bonnie J. Campbell Attorney General of Iowa