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The basic principles of making officer death notifications


June 11, 2007
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The basic principles of making officer death notifications

From the Calibre Press Street Survival Newsline

[Special note: We are fully aware that there are police spouses of both genders. The majority of them are female so for simplicity and ease of readability, we will be referring to spouses as females in this piece. No offense is intended.]

Make them...

1. In Person

Never make notification over the phone if at all possible. A phone call is far too impersonal for a grave situation like an officer death. The family being notified will need a human presence there to assist them in dealing with the shock they will feel.

Do everything possible to be sure the family doesn't learn of their loved one's death through the media. One murdered officer's spouse relayed, "I had just finished grocery shopping when I heard the chilling report of a police shootout on the car radio. The reporter was the one who informed me that it was my husband who had been killed. My neighbors found me crying hysterically parked in the middle of the road several blocks from home."

Never make the death notification on the doorstep if at all possible. Ask to be let in the house before you make notification to allow them the privacy of their home when they react to the tragic news.

The officer's parents should be afforded the courtesy of an in-person notification in addition to the spouse. If they are out of town, contact an agency in their area and ask them to make the notification for you so you don't need to do it over the phone. Also, ask the notifying officers to call your department when they are at the scene so you can relay details of the officer's death to them over the phone.

2. In Time

A police widow from Pennsylvania reports, "When I got to the hospital, he (her officer husband) had already died. He had been at the hospital for 2 hours. The department waited for the chaplain to arrive before coming to tell me. I could have seen him before he died."

Don't wait to make notification. Making a death notification is difficult, but waiting may only intensify the family's pain. If the opportunity to get the family to the hospital before the officer dies presents itself, don't wait for the designated departmental representatives to gather. Denying the spouse the opportunity to spend the last moments of life with her loved one will do her serious emotional damage and may be trouble for the department down the road.

Never take it upon yourself to decide the spouse doesn't want to see her officer die. Advising her, "You don't need to see this," is NOT being nice.

Waiting increases the chances that the family will learn of their loved one's death from another source like the media. Although the officer's name should never be released to the media before the family is notified, reporters do sometimes find out who was killed and release the name.

Never announce the death over your police radio. The availability of scanners increases the chance that a neighbor will hear your report of the officer's death and notify the family before trained department representatives can get to the officer's home.

3. In Pairs

People react to tragic news differently. One of the normal reactions to sudden grief is lashing out violently. Having an additional officer at the scene will help control a physical confrontation.

If the spouse doesn't believe that the officer is dead, having 2 notifiers at the scene allows for confirmation that what she's hearing is true.

If the family has young children, having 2 officers present allows for one to stay with the kids while the other takes the spouse to the hospital or the morgue. Be sure notification teams take separate vehicles so one can be used to transport the spouse. DO NOT let the shocked spouse drive herself to the hospital or morgue. If she insists, have an officer accompany her in the car.

If possible, send death notifying teams in male/female pairs. Some people relate better to men, others to women. Also, it's common for mothers who must leave their children in the care of someone else to be more comfortable leaving the children with a female officer.

Two officers allows for emotional support for the team members as well. Death notification is never easy, but having a fellow officer present to assist can make this trying responsibility easier.

4. In Plain Language

There is no good way to present tragic news. Be straightforward and avoid using cliques like, "Your husband passed on," or "Your wife didn't make it." Use the words "dead," "killed," "died." Family members need to immediately understand what you're saying. Don't make them fish for meaning. There are no words you can use to soften the blow, so come straight out and say it.

If the officer has already died, don't give the spouse false hope. "We drove for what seemed like hours with the escorting officer saying repeatedly, 'He's going to be all right,'" said one police widow. "When we got to the hospital, I was told he had died at the scene." This only results in delayed anguish and potentially a feeling of frustration that, "Had I gotten there quicker, I could have seen him alive."

Also be sure to refer to the officer by first name when making the notification. Avoid "your husband" or "your wife" or "officer...." Mentioning the officer by name helps the surviving spouse better connect with what you are saying.

5. With compassion

The best thing you can say, according to surviving spouses, is "I'm sorry this happened," not "We did the best we could to save him," or "He died a hero," or "Don't worry. We'll catch the guy who did this." Saying, "I'm sorry" is the simplest and most direct way you can show you feel for them.

Also, avoid saying, "I know how you feel." Unless you've lost a spouse in the line of duty, you DON'T know how they feel, and they know it. This trivializes the emotional destruction they've just suffered.

If you have been seriously affected by the death, it's O.K. to show emotion. Allow your emotions to flow as well as the spouse's, but be sure to maintain some semblance of self-control.

Other things to keep in mind:

Be aware of any health problems the spouse may have before making death notification. If the spouse has heart trouble, for example, be sure you've dispatched medical personnel to the home to coincide with the death notification.

Try to gather all family members in the household together, including children, before you make notification. This allows them to grieve together and prevents you from having to make repeated notifications. As with every death notification, this may not work under the circumstances. As we say in the Street Survival Seminar, improvise, adapt and overcome.

And above all, don't beat yourself up if things don't work out as planned.

Be sure to plan the notification before you make it. The notification team should meet before they approach the house so they can determine who will be talking and who will be serving as backup. Also, be sure you know what you're going to say so you can be concise and avoid beating around the bush under pressure.

If your department has a chaplain, consider having an officer/chaplain team make notification. The officer can provide the technical details of the death and the chaplain can provide emotional support.

Does the Chief need to be present at the death notification? Families have reported that having the Chief or other high-ranking official present confirmed that their officer was important to the department. The absence of such an official has been viewed by both families and co-workers as not only insensitive but poor leadership as well.

Be prepared for any of the 3 Fs of common reactions to death notifications:

Fight: The family member(s) lash out at you. Flight: They refuse to open the door or slam it in your face the minute they see your uniform. Or the spouse runs, hides or passes out. Freeze: No noticeable emotional response ("O.K. Thank you. Can I make you a cup of coffee?").

Other reactions may include hysterics, fainting, vomiting...just about anything can happen. Remember these reactions are normal and be prepared to cope with them.

Don't impose your religious beliefs on the survivors. Even if they are religious, they may not want to hear religious statements right now. Saying "Let's pray," may only serve to make the situation worse. Religious consultation should only be given after offered and accepted. Also be aware that officers come from a variety of religions and something you say may be considered offensive in certain beliefs.

If the family has questions...

Answer them candidly and to the best of your ability. Be sure you've gathered as much information as possible as quickly as possible so you can give answers in as much detail as possible. Don't be afraid to give them the details of the death...they need to know. In most cases, the details will be far less shocking than what they will imagine happened if left uninformed.

If you don't know the answer to a question, admit it. If you tell the spouse her husband was shot once and it turns out he was shot 6 times, the paranoia that sometimes accompanies the grief that LE spouses suffer will be intensified once she finds out the true details ("He told me John was shot only once. What else is the department hiding?")

NEVER tell them, "You don't need to know that," or "You don't want to hear any more about this." If you are uncomfortable sharing the details with the family, have someone else do it. Don't let your lack of comfort jeopardize the family's right to know how they lost their loved one.

Many departments keep the family in the dark about the details of the incident, stating that it could influence the outcome of the trial. If this is truly the case, the department should sit down with the family and compassionately explain their reasons for not sharing information. As soon as possible after the trial, the department should meet with the family to share all the details of the incident in their own words.

Take your time. Never notify and abruptly leave. Stay with the survivor for as long as possible and be sure he/she has other family members or friends present when you do have to leave.

Notifiers should debrief after they've left the house. They need to have a chance to discuss and purge what they've just experienced emotionally.

If a spouse's friend or family member is trying to provide comforting words like, "He's gone to a better place," or "You'll get through this," or "Time heals all wounds," and you see it's not working, try saying something like, "That doesn't take away their loss." This is a non-offensive way of giving that person the hint that what they're saying isn't helping right now and they need to stop.

Don't take the officer's personal belongings with you when you notify. Present them later. When you do, be sure they are presented in a respectable container like a clean box or a nice gym bag, not a used paper bag. It was also advised that a supervisor go through the officer's locker before the personal belongings are gathered. There is always the possibility that the officer may have something in there the spouse won't want to see at this time.

Be sure you offer to call a friend or family member to come over. Don't leave that up to the spouse.

If the spouse wants to see the body

Denying access to the officer's body IS NOT an act of kindness. It prevents closure. If the spouse requests to see the body and the officer is badly damaged, be forthright with this information. Telling the spouse, "You don't want to see him" will be damaging to the healing process.

If the spouse still wants to see the body, even after being told of the officer's condition, take her to her spouse immediately. Before you enter the room, be sure you prepare her for what she may see or smell ("John was very badly burned, so when you go in there you are going to smell burned skin. I want you to be aware of that." Or if the spouse has died in the hospital, be sure to tell them, "The doctors had to do a lot of work on Susan so you're going to see a lot of tubes sticking out of her and a lot of blood.") Be sure an officer accompanies the family into the room to assist if needed.

Some death attendants can be creative with damaged bodies. If there is serious damage to one side of the head for example, they can cover that portion with a towel. Be sure they are alerted before the family comes for a viewing.

If at all possible, avoid having the spouse see the officer in the morgue. If the morgue is in a hospital, ask that the body be removed from that room and moved to another more neutral room until family viewing is over.

If the body is still at the crime scene and the investigation is still occurring to the extent that the family cannot yet cross the tape, keep the family in a "safe" area and keep them constantly informed ("I just talked to an investigator and they're working as fast as they can. You'll be able to see John soon.") Don't leave them standing unattended and uninformed for long periods of time.

If an officer is dying in a hospital

Have the family wait in a room separate, BUT NOT COMPLETELY ISOLATED, from the officers who have gathered. If the family needs it, the support of their officer's partners should be readily available. Also, on the way to the hospital, be sure you prepare the spouse for the fact that she'll see tons of police cars and cops there so the sight of hoards of emergency vehicles doesn't startle her. Make sure she knows they're her officer's friends and are there showing support.

When doctors make status reports, make sure they make them to the family FIRST and the officers SECOND.

If the officer is still alive and you bring the spouse into the room, remember, it's O.K. if she screams, cries, faints, grabs him...or whatever, as long as she doesn't damage any equipment being used to try to save him. The same applies if the officer is dead. Remember, it's a normal reaction for the spouse to touch, kiss, hug her spouse's body. Don't try to stop this even if it makes you uncomfortable. This is allowing for normal closure.

If the doctors tell you the officer will die very soon, be sure the FAMILY is the first to have the opportunity to be with him. Fellow officers should never take up the precious last moments of life if the family is present. If the officer died moments ago, be sure the family is able to see him IMMEDIATELY. If they choose to touch his body, it will still be warm, which allows for less traumatic memories. If the next time they see him is in the funeral home, the body will be stiff and cold. Allow them the chance to see and feel him while he's still flexible and warm.

If a doctor is present at a death notification in a hospital, be sure he/she is in CLEAN, not blood splattered, clothes.

Do not sedate the spouse unless he/she requests it.

Make sure the hospital understands that all medical bills are to be sent directly to the appropriate section of the department. On intake, the hospital will ask for the officer's home address. Be sure they know the bills ARE NOT sent to this address. If they are, the spouse will be constantly reminded of her officer's death by high medical bills arriving at the home that include mention of the extreme measures that needed to be taken to try to save her spouse.

Officers should not be afraid to show their emotions to the family. It's O.K. to cry. The family needs to see that. They need to know that their loved one meant a great deal to you and you're not afraid to show it. Seeing your emotions most likely will help them, not hurt them or make their grief worse.

Male officers have been known to have a particularly hard time showing emotion. As a motivation to allow yourself the ability to express these perfectly normal reactions, consider the consequences of the following destructive realities:

The Commandments of Masculinity

He Shall Not Cry
He Shall Not Display Weakness
He Shall Not Need Affection; Or Gentleness Or Warmth
He Shall Comfort But Not Desire Comforting
He Shall Be Needed, But Not Need
He Shall Touch, But Not Be Touched
He Shall Be Steel, Not Flesh
He Shall Be Inviolate In His Manhood
He Shall Stand Alone

5 common but destructive coping styles used by males who are grieving

To remain silent
To engage in solitary mourning or "secret" grief
To take physical or legal action
To become overly immersed in activity
To exhibit addictive behavior

Avoid falling prey to these negative approaches to handling grief. The emotional damage caused by not allowing grief to be expressed and run its course can spell big trouble for you down the road.




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