Death notification: Breaking the bad news

Why does so little training exist for the most grim job in law enforcement?


     Notification should be done:

  • In person. Use of the telephone to make death notification is callous and insensitive. Ask yourself how you would like your family notified.
  • In pairs. Death notification is best done by two people, at least one of whom should be in uniform. Do not arrive in a large group. Two vehicles are best, in the event medical transport may be necessary.
  • In private. Present credentials. Ask to come inside. Do not make notification on the porch or in a public place.
  • In plain language. Don't use medical jargon. Use simple, straightforward language to describe how, when and where the person died. Don't be afraid to use the "D" words — dead, died or death. Terms such as "expired," "passed on" or "lost" are words of denial. "Expired" can be used on a drivers license but not on a person — it's not respectful.
  • In time. Make notification before the family sees it on the news. Then get to the point. Don't drag it out. People know when police arrive at their door at 4 a.m. it is not because they won the lottery. Say something like, "I'm sorry, your husband was in an auto accident tonight. He died while paramedics were attempting to revive him." Then give details as indicated.

     — Sources: Sue Rutherford, executive director of the Arizona Trauma Intervention Program and "In Person, In Time: Recommended Procedures for Death Notification."

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