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
13 comments on “Death Notifications | CT14”
Are there policies and procedures specifying how soon after identification of body that the next of kin should be notified? Is this on a state by state basis?
This is something that each State and facility must know. The common standard is to notify as soon as possible. This does not mean immediate if there are circumstances that warrant a delay.
I perform a preventive training exercise called Next Of Kin where high-risk project leaders have a death on their job-site and they have to tell the next of kin (me) that their son just died.
Again, that training is preventive. I’m also looking into using my performance to train those who will actually need to give a death notification. Thoughts? Point me in the right direction?
My son was found deceased Aug 27th by his room mate and the police NEVER notified us. The room mate sent our youngest son telling him his brother had died. Then our son clef me screaming and I am still in total and utter shock. To this day they never called and if I had not found where they took his body and dumped it he probably would have been buried without us knowing. This is absolutely devastating as a parent and no parent should lose a child and then to have these police treat us this way? Horrible and evil!
This sound horrible- Im very sorry you have had to go through this. I cannot imagine a reason why no one contacted you. A death of a child is hard enough and then to feel like the people who should care do not demonstrate that concern makes it harder I’m sure.
The police said they weren’t obligated to call us. My msg above looks garbled. My younger son received a msg on Facebook telling him his brother was dead. He called here screaming and I am surprised my husband nor I died. We were in shock and had NO ONE here to help us, tell us what happened, nothing. I since filed complaint against cops and they blamed my son for everything. Anybody reading this can well imagine the horror and agony we have been through and it is still ongoing. One cop actually told me to quit calling and told me my son was fat and obese and a drug addict and on and on. Btw he overdosed on fentynal after having been prescribed Oxycodone and Percocet and Valium and Ambien. We are devastated but the latest news about Congress getting off their tails and maybe finally doing something can maybe prevent the huge number of people dying. Our son was doing so well and to have him taken like this is much more than a parent can bear.
My son died in 2011. I lived in Ga, he was killed in Middletown Ohio
I was never contacted by the police. Media knew before me, also coroner office called, they wasn’t nice. I said no autopsy till i got there!
It took me one day to get there. They already did autopsy
And no one at police department ever talked to me. I went every 3 months. Then I was told I couldn’t even see my son’s body for 7 days?
I don’t understand. 6 years later, they still won’t talk to me or neither will Butler County coroner
I’m sorry you have had to deal with that. Of course, I could not answer for their reasons for what they did or didn’t do. But I do wish they would open communication to you. Many times closing communications causes more stress and hurt than simply getting your answers, even if the answer is we don’t have any answers. Thank you for your comment…
I demanded autopsy after finding they dumped our son at a charity funeral home like a piece of meat and the medical examiner refused saying no evidence of homicide, suicide or overdose. Oh woops!! It was ruled accidental overdose from fentynal and morphine. I filed complaint against that office as well. 700 overdoses in that area of the US this year and nobody arrested yet? What is going on?
Your expertise on this topic has been greatly appreciated. I was reading your article as reference material, but reading the way this is supposed to go made me realize that my personal brush with being on the receiving end of a death notification was not the way things should hopefully go. The article gave me closure, in a way. Thanks for your sensitive attention to the topic and how publicly available you’ve made it. It’s greatly appreciated.
I live in South Carolina. My sister passed away tragically, April 22, 2017. My family and I have been told that her death was due to an overdose. She was married at the time, but she had not been living with her husband for quite some time and she was in the works of getting a divorce before she passed away. All my family knows is that she passed away from an overdose- the investigator would not give us anymore detail. I was always curious as to if they were going to hold anyone accountable for giving her lethal drugs (it was fetanynal). They wouldn’t tell us anything. Is this proper protocal? The investigator told me to get a copy of the police report- anything beyond that he said he didn’t know anything more.
Also, my big question is, I really, really, really, want to pick up her personal effects. She was wearing my fathers necklace when she passed. It is a family heirloom. The police department will not call/email me back after numerous attempts of contacting them. I assume my sister’s “next of kin” is considered to be her husband, but he will not communicate with the family. He will not allow my family collect my sister’s belongings. I have begged, and begged and nothing comes out of it. He was a terrible person. He is a practicing doctor and my family believes that perhaps there are narcotics in the purse that she was carrying that could be tied back to her him. Her husband has hired an attorney, and he has all the money in the world- making my family and I feeling powerless and empty without any closure. All I want out of this is to get her belongings. If you would be so kind, could you tell me what my rights are as her sister? Is there any legal loophole or do I have any rights whatsoever to retrieve her belongings? I stumbled upon this site and I strongly believe that your advice could possibly be life changing. Getting her belongings would give me some closure. Her belongings have been sitting there for a year and a half now.
I thank you in advance for your attention to this matter that is so close to my heart. Any advice is greatly appreciated.
Different type of question:
I live in Portland Oregon. My mother, who has been in Hospice for more than a year, died yesterday.
The medical provider managing her care notified me by cell text that she had died at 12:20 pm the same day has the text notification.
However, she was not dead, and did not die until ten hours later. The hospital admitted their mistake and planned to investigate.
Very traumatic event for all family members/
Have you ever heard of any similar events?
I spoke with a funeral home administrator today who told me that she had never of any think like this happening in Oregon,
Darren: Being a retired police officer who has made many of these notifications, I found this article to be excellent. I often was criticized for “taking too long” when I made these notifications but I owed it to the families to do it the right way. Little did I know that one day I would end up telling my sons that their mom had died at home while they were in school. Well done!