The Death Notification
For survivors, the beginning of their reactions to the death of their loved one is the death notification process. It is important that death notifications be handled as well as possible because it is the critical point of trauma for most survivors. Properly done, it can begin a healing process. When it is done improperly or without insight into the survivor's possible reactions, it may delay the process of reconstructing the survivor's life for years.
You never know when you are making a death notification. Many people think of death notification in terms of notification of next of kin. But the "next of kin" may be a parent, sibling or spouse. Clearly there are many additional family members who need notification and who might react with strong emotions. In addition, there are often colleagues, and even long-term acquaintances that may be severely affected by a notification.
~Take from NOVA training manual
If you are involved in the actual notification of death, please consider the following suggestions from survivors of murder:
- Provide a private, quiet area
- Don't go alone when you go to notify a family
- Have a telephone and a restroom readily available
- Have as many of the family members in the room as possible before informing them of the victim's death
- Prepare the person first that you have some terrible news to give them
- Have only one professional actually doing the speaking
- ALWAYS notify in person
- Introduce yourself and identify the person to whom you are speaking to make sure that the correct family/survivors are in the room
- Sit with whom you are speaking - do not stand above them and/or look down on them
- Speak face to face with the family and maintain eye contact
- Touch the person as you speak to them
- Speak softly and directly
- Try to put yourself in the victim's place and be as sensitive as you would want someone to be if it were your loved one who was murdered
- Use the word "dead". It is universally understood.
- Do not use the word "expired"
- Never use words such as "passed away," "gone to a better place," "they are with their maker," etc. Such comments are easily misunderstood.
- Be aware of individual and cultural differences regarding the grieving process. Some cultures may respond calmly, whereas others express anger, disbelief, and may respond in a loud, verbal manner.
- Tell the family members everything you know - do not hold back any information
- Have grief resources available to give to the family (brochures, phone numbers, web sites, etc.)
- Be aware that the moment that you are sharing is a moment the family/survivors will never forget. The face and voice of the professional delivering such a message will forever remain in their memory.
- Do not be judgmental as to the reaction of the bereaved
- Allow time for the family to spend with the deceased. Prepare them for what they will see and inform them of why such items as medical apparatus and items of evidence may not be removed from the victim's body.
- Explain possible law enforcement or medical examiner policies that may impact and possibly restrict what will happen to their loved one's body.
- Do not leave families alone for extended periods of time.
- If the families inquire regarding pain and suffering experienced by the victim, make every effort to respond to their questions in a compassionate, honest, thorough and professional manner. Families need and want the truth.
- Allow the family to touch their deceased loved one
- Clean up the body before it is viewed
- Treat the body and the family with respect
- Check with the family about any special things that they may want done
- Be sensitive and caring
Reactions from Survivors as to their exposure to the death notification and the Coroner handling their loved one's case
"We were not allowed to identify the girls' bodies, supposedly because of the deteroriation that had taken place. We got the autopsy reports several months later. I understood everything that was in them, but I had serious doubts about its validity.
The autopsy report said that Gracie was 5' 3" with brown hair - Gracie was 5' 7" with blonde hair.
It said Tiffany was 4' 3" - she was 4' 10".
Reports from police said there was an awful lot of type O blood at the scene. Now Gracie had her throat cut, which might explain that, except her blood type was A.
The dental records that were sent only showed that 'this could possibly be Gracie!'
When I called the coroner and talked to him, he said that he didn't do such a great job for identification because they had already been identified when they came into the morgue. None of us were able to identify them, so who did? They were nothing but skulls attached to their bodies, decomposed beyond recognition. There was no way for anyone who couldn't identify other scars to be able to do that.
Every time I tried to question anyone after that, they blew it off by telling me I was in denial. The blood type, the teeth, the rate of decomposition within those three days they were missing were all legitimate questions. It had nothing to do with denial!"
"I had never even met our Coroner. Before I could travel the hour to the hospital where my husband died, they had already shipped him off to another town for an autopsy. Both me and my brother-in-law had wanted to spend a moment with him before they did that. The Coroner was too busy for us, though. They allowed a neighbor to identify my husband before any family member were even able to get to the hospital. The Coroner also 'lost' my husband's personal effects. My mother-in-law has requested many times to see the autopsy report and no one will let her. They won't even let me. Don't care much for Coroners or their employees. It's just another corpse to them."
"Four days after the murder, I was allowed to see Aaron's face. They brought his body into a hallway of the morgue's basement, completely covered, except for his head, with an afghan (made of brightly colored floral squares). To this day, that afghan haunts me. A sheet would have been so much more appropriate.
I asked to see one leg (birthmark) and one hand (scar) so I could satisfy myself that it really was him, but they would not allow it. His body was held for another 97 days (defense request) but no family members were given further access. Even though, in the state of Washington, the family is allowed to view the cremation, we were not told this. We just received a phone call one day to pick up his ashes.
Since I was so very upset by that afghan, I should have gone back to the funeral home and told them to never do that again - but I didn't."
"The hospital staff brought us to Jim's cubicle at my insistence. He didn't have identification on him (always forgot his wallet). We weren't allowed to touch him - they physically held me back. Once my husband told them it was our son, they asked us to wait for the Coroner so that we could identify him - hadn't we already done that? Anyway, I don't remember the interview with the Coroner, except that we had to walk back into that cubicle.
Strange thing was, the Doctor who had cut my son open to massage his heart told us that he had been shot in the back. The next day when the Coroner called, he said he'd been shot point blank in the lower chest/upper abdomen, and that thre was no exit wound.
So strange the things we remember with clarity and those other things that seem a blur."
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