Death Notifications: Delivering The News

Death notifications

Delivering a death notification is often referred to as the worst assignment a cop will ever receive. I agree, it’s tough duty. The drive to the house, thinking about and rehearsing in your mind what you’ll say, is never long enough—one of the shortest drives a cop will ever take.

However, no matter how tough emotionally it is for a police officer, many survivors of homicide victims say that receiving the notification of their loved one’s death is the most traumatic and horrifying event of their lives. Therefore, what officers say during the notification, and how they say it, can either complicate the moment and the survivor’s grieving process, or the officer’s words can go a long way toward helping the survivors begin rebuilding their lives.

A few simple steps help make the process a little easier. Such as:

1. Before the officer begins that drive to the survivor’s home, he/she should familiarize himself/herself with the victims family, if possible, and if time allows. Notifying the nearest kin/closest survivor is always best.

2. Always deliver the notice in person, and always do so with a partner. One officer should assume the lead and do all the talking, while the partner watches for signs of trouble and/or danger. Death notices should always be delivered in private. Not on the front doorstep or in the driveway. Also, in cases where it’s known that a survivor may have a medical condition, it’s a good idea to have medical personnel standing by.

3. Know the details of the victim’s death. Family members want to know what happened, when it happened, and where it happened. Don’t use “cop speak.” Talk in plain language. Be honest. Knowing details of injuries better prepares the survivor in the event they’re called on to make identification, or for the moment when they hear those same details in court.

4. Always refer to the victim by name. Never say things like, “the deceased,” or “his remains.”

5. Survivor’s first reactions are often of denial. Have information ready to verify the victim’s identity. However, never bring a victim’s personal items to the home.

6. Be sure the survivor is seated before the officer delivers the news.

7. Deliver the news to an adult. Separate children from the adults, but offer to assist with delivering the news to the children.

8. No beating around the bush. Be direct. “I’m sorry to tell you that your husband was killed during a bank robbery today at 4:30.” Do not use phrases like “passed away” or “he left us.”

9. Different people react differently to the news. Don’t judge.

10. Be prepared for “If you’d done your job instead of drinking coffee, he’d still be alive.” Police officers are often the first people blamed. Roll with the punches and remain supportive.

11. Assist with notifying other family members (phone calls, etc.), if needed.

12. Never make frivolous promises such as, “We’re going to catch this guy and put him away for a long time.”

13. Be sure the survivor has a support system handy—someone to stay with them, etc.

14. Leave your contact information.

15. Provide written information regarding other support services—victim/witness services, crime scene clean up, etc. Always leave written information. Memories aren’t in tip-top shape during those moments.

9 replies
  1. Allison Leotta
    Allison Leotta says:

    Great article, Lee. I have a death-notification scene in my upcoming legal thriller, DISCRETION. In researching it, I spoke to several detectives, who gave me points similar to the ones you made here. What a difficult job. Thanks for doing it for so many years. It’s a true public service.

    It’s also great that you put this all in one comprehensive article. You are a terrific resource for writers.

  2. MaryC
    MaryC says:

    Lee – very well said as usual. I know quite a few parents who have received notices like this – some were handled well and some not so much. In one case, a daughter died in a highway accident in Georgia. The troopers contacted the sheriffs here in Kentucky who made the notification.

    Sheila, I’m sorry it was handled so badly for you. As you say there’s no good way to tell someone but there are certainly really bad ways to do it.

  3. Fran Stewart
    Fran Stewart says:

    Sheila, how awful that you were contacted this way. Thank you for sharing the story. I hope someone (perhaps one of the trainers in a Sheriff’s department) will read this and make sure that the trainees learn better.

    Lee, of course, is a good example of the many fine, caring police officers out there. It’s a shame you didn’t hear the news from someone like him.

    And Lee–thank you for this post. My heart goes out to the officers who deliver such news as well as to families of the victims.

  4. Sheila Lowe
    Sheila Lowe says:

    Okay, Lee, you know I have to comment…the notification I received that my daughter had been killed by her boyfriend was done on my cell phone at 11:30 on a Saturday morning this way, and I quote the Sheriff’s investigator: Do you know Jennifer Lowe?
    me: She’s my daughter, why?
    Investigator: I’m sorry to tell you, your daughter’s been murdered.
    Jennifer lived 100 miles away, but there was a Sheriff’s station two miles from my house, so I’m guessing they could have had someone come over. I often used to wonder what would have happened if I’d been driving on the freeway when this news was delivered (I had said to Inv. Homs that I was on my cell phone). But in the end, the truth is, there is no good way to deliver news like this.

  5. MJ Chessin
    MJ Chessin says:

    Last month two Shaker Heights, OH officers came to my door with the news that my brother, a state trooper in Nevada, was dead. Although clearly very uncomfortable they were great.
    I noticed their car drive by the house a few times that night. A very caring gesture I thought.

  6. Lee Lofland
    Lee Lofland says:

    Lynn, I don’t see anything wrong with what the police did. I’m sure your friend told the officers that he would let you know your husband was on his way to the ER. At that point there was no (legal/criminal, etc.) reason for the police to become involved. Actually, they probably figured it would less alarming to you if it was a friend who notified you at that point. A medical condition is not normally something where police would go to a home for a notification. They have, but it’s not the norm. Usually, someone from the hospital calls in those situations. However, if they can’t reach anyone they often call on the police to help out, and they do.

  7. Marni Graff
    Marni Graff says:

    Just read a great scene in Val McDermid’s RETRIBUTION where DCI Carol Jordan has to make this drive–to her own parents house to tell them her brother and his partner have been murdered. Very affecting.

    Lynn: the same situation occurred when my friend’s husband was out walking their dog and had a massive MI; a neighbor got to her before the formal police notification could and she went right to the hospital.

  8. Lynn
    Lynn says:

    I always wondered, when my husband had a heart attack while running and the police were first on the scene to try and resuscitate him when the ambulance took my husband to the hospital what should they have done? It turns out what actually happened was that his running partner came to tell me that Karl had been taken to the hospital — but was that the proper protocol? What if the running partner hadn’t known me?

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