Delivering Victim-Sensitive Death Notifications
Bill Jenkins, Janice Harris Lord  -  2008/8/28
http://ovc.ncjrs.gov/ovcproviderforum
 
 
Will you cover the nuances of suicide in this discussion?
 
1.  Bill Jenkins
 Suicide can pose some difficult problems for death notifications. One problem is that since it is not technically considered a crime, I am aware that the police often are not involved and leave the DN to the hospital or medical examiners office. Their protocols may be different, or hastier than requiring a visit to the home. Also, many suicides occur in personal spaces and are discovered by family or friends. Add to that the stigma of suicide itself and the often intended message that is directed toward the family or survivors, and you can have a big emotional mess.I believe that in a case where the suicide takes place outside the home and is unknown to the family, a DN should be given as any other, with police presence and with the presence of perhaps the familys clergy, if known, or a chaplain, since suicides seem to always bring religious questions with them. Not that all chaplains or clergy may have the best answers for the family regarding suicide, and most of the time they should listen more than they speak, but their presence is an acknowledgement of the situation. A mental health professional may also be appropriate. In no case, as in any DN, do I feel that it should be done by a lone police officer or without a team of professionals who have been trained to deliver the resources necessary to assist the family with their immediate needs.
 
 
I am a law enforcement chaplain. In our training academy we were discouraged from using the words "I'm sorry" while giving a death notification, because it could be perceived as our taking on some responsibility for the loss. I'd love to hear your opinion about this, as many of my peers disagree on the subject. It seems a naturally compassionate phrasing, and sometimes feels "fake" to hold it back. I'd love to hear your input.
 
1.  Bill Jenkins
 ... continued. Fourth, you are the messenger, not the cause of their pain. While some may immediately blame the messenger, they usually realize soon enough that they are mistaken to do so. Furthermore, you are a chaplain. Even if the death was caused by a police shooting (which can create some real conflicts during a death notification) you cannot logically be held accountable. In my personal opinion, and I know this is pretty strong, it is ludicrous to think that this expression of sympathy will be seen by the family as your agency taking on some responsibility for the death. On the contrary, it will be accepted for what it is, a genuine expression of sympathy, even an official expression of sympathy, in a time of deep need and personal upheaval. Another point here is valid, as well. I always advise people to say, I'm sorry. I also advise them not to make is sound as if someone taught them how to say it. Many professionals use the phrase, Im sorry for your loss. I advise against it because it sounds like patterned behavior. It sounds less genuine and that someone told you to use it when you don't know what else to say. This is a minor point, but an important one when you are working with someone who is in traumatic shock. They may, as I do, remember every word, phrase, and expression from that night later on and it will become an important part of their life story and memories.
 
2.  Bill Jenkins
 Oh boy. I heartily disagree with this and here is why: First, there is no reason to jump to the conclusion that families will place blame on you for showing a compassionate response to their grief. I did not when the officer said Im sorry, Mr. Jenkins. to me, nor have many others. Second, an expression of genuine concern and sympathy is always appropriate in this situation. If you are sorry, you need to say you're sorry. To not do so is not only hurtful but downright rude and will create an awkward barrier between you and the family that will affect your ability to deliver services to them. Third, stoicism and formality or officiousness can be easily perceived by the family as gross insensitivity. This can affect the familys well-being as well as their willingness to work with the legal system in the future, not to mention creating an environment that is needlessly more traumatizing than it already is. I know of no one who has complained that the police were out of line by saying a simple, Im sorry. I know a lot of people, however, who have complained that the police were cold, insensitive, and unfeeling because they didn't say it. (It was the number one complaint of victims families in a POMC survey available on their website.) Remember that you are often laying the foundation for this familys future relationship with the criminal justice system. Don't you want that family to be as kindly disposed as possible because they were treated with respect and sensitivity rather than having them hostile and uncooperative because the death notification was cold and insensitive? Which do you think the prosecutors and investigators will prefer? more ...
 
3.  Janice Lord
 I disagree, too, Meta, and if you need supporting documents, I believe both Bill's book and mine address this. It expresses your own emotional reaction, which often allows the family to begin expressing theirs. If your agency is concerned about appearing to be liable, simply extend the statement to something like, I'm so sorry you have to go through this. It's not easy for anyone.
 
 
What do you recommend to effectively educate the broader public about the types of questions or statements they should or should not say to victim families who have just learned of their loved one's death? It seems nearly impossible to get the media and public to learn more about WHAT to ask victim families who have just learned their loved ones have been murdered. The media or well-intentioned people ask things like, "Do you have closure now that your child's body has been found?" or they say things like, "Why was your child walking alone?" These kinds of things enrage victim families, understandably. With the commoness of death, our society needs to teach more effective ways to deal with it.
 
1.  Bill Jenkins
 ... continued. At the academic level you could provide materials on victimology, even if its just a couple pages of recommended readings and a list of online resources, to local journalism, criminology, and social work classes; pastoral counseling programs; law schools; seminaries; and police academies in your community. Get to them before they get to the field. You also may know some victims you could recommend to professors who would like to bring in guest speakers. I have spoken at several of these very successful events from time to time. I have found that many people including police, the media and clergy, are willing to take time to learn how to be more sensitive for the very reason that they know deep down that they dont know what they are doing. You probably know who these folks are and have professional credibility with them already. Developing a relationship with the community is, I think, a vital part of effective victim advocacy. Unfortunately, most programs are short-staffed as it is, but it is well worth the effort if you can manage it.
 
2.  Bill Jenkins
 Personally, I think that victim sensitivity training should extend to the media, but that's not likely going to happen. You raise an important point. In the back of my book, I have a page that I give specific permission to reproduce and distribute called How to Help a Friend in Grief. I put it together because of the exact frustration you mention. I felt that it could be an important tool to help other people understand how important it is to not use platitudes, to listen more than talk, to not avoid talking about our loved one, to help us get back to a new level of normal in our lives, etc. Ironically, it is often those who are most intent on helping us that make the biggest gaffes. They so desperately want us to get back to the place that we were in before tragedy came along that they try too hard. Sometimes, even those in our church or the clergy are way off the mark with their attempts to get us back on track and help us understand what has happened. Trying to move us too far, too fast. Providing answers that make them feel better, but not us. You are right, there is a lot of education that needs to take place. I would perhaps challenge victim advocates to help us in this when the opportunity arises. You might partner with local funeral homes and universities to do this. Share materials with the media, clergy, and therapists in your community that may help them understand the very special and specific needs of the families of traumatic loss. You could even sponsor workshops with guest speakers and staff. more
 
 
What would you suggest is the best approach in the situation when delivering a death notification to the sole male resident (father or the husband of the victim), and this male remains very calm but soon after the notification thanks you and asks you to leave - because he needs to be alone (efforts to call somebody for him are in vain). In one hand we can not force our presence (even though it is a good idea not leave people alone at the time like this), but on the other hand suicidal ideations are something to worry about when delivering such a news. B. Bagi
 
1.  Bill Jenkins
 Tough call. I think this is one of the best times for a crisis response team involving a victim. You may be asked to leave, but that doesn't mean that someone else shouldn't show up to do a follow-up shortly afterwards, perhaps a victim of a similar loss, who can make a personal connection with the man and draw him out a bit, drop off some materials, offer resources. You might also enlist the help of the investigators and ask if they are able to take a few minutes to stop and see if hes all right and at the same time do him the courtesy of providing whatever information they are able to share at that time.Suicide is a very real concern, yet to what lengths are you able to intervene? Intentional follow-up seems to me to be one of the better directions to go in.
 
2.  Janice Lord
 Unless you see signs that the man may actually have a suicidal intent (such as obvious mental illness, an attempt to get a weapon, etc.) I would honor his wishes. Some people need solitude when in high stress. Others want family and friends around. I would, however, follow up with a call to him in an hour or so.
 
 
Mr. Jenkins, the question I want to ask is how to prepare my fellow chaplains in be able to make death notices, but also to go beyond the notice and not to make this a platform to get people to come to their church,but to focus on the victims individual need. The other side of this is we are beginning a chaplaincy from scratch here in Clallam county and we want to be a blessing to the local Sheriff department.
 
1.  Bill Jenkins
 ... continued. I believe that people can be angry with God and still be on speaking terms. I believe that people can walk through the valley of the shadow of death and come out the other side. I believe that people will come to the place they need to be in their personal and spiritual growth, but they cannot be pushed or told what to believe right after their loved one has been killed. Some take solace in their faith. Others do not. Some will learn to. You have to give them the time and space in which to do this. Now, to the second part of your question. If the chaplains do not learn the basics of how to work with people in deep crisis and trauma in this way, they will not gain the credibility necessary to be acknowledged by the law enforcement community. This will be vital to your being able to convince the Sheriff that the chaplains will benefit their efforts. A big selling point, however, is that when a death notification is given by the police or sheriffs office, the officer can leave soon after and allow the chaplain and other members of the crisis response team to continue working with the family as long is it seems necessary or appropriate. This frees up the officers sooner and allows the family to still have access to the resources necessary for their well-being. Perhaps others here today can help you with this program development based on their own personal experiences, as well.
 
2.  Bill Jenkins
 There are many very effective and sound chaplain/law enforcement partnerships. I was just speaking to a chaplain in Philadelphia this morning who is working to develop a program there. First, you need to establish protocols and procedures that everyone agrees to follow. As a visiting chaplain in the home during a death notification your job is much like hospital chaplaincy. Often, you are visiting people who are in crisis but not members of your church. You provide sensitive and often generic counseling without judgment or denominational spin. You meet the spiritual needs of people as best as you can in the circumstances letting them direct the focus. And if you feel that the needs of the individual would be best met by someone closer to them, you can facilitate them meeting with someone from their church or congregation. Sound about right?Second, you need to have someone come in to train your group and spend enough time with them that they are able to answer their questions and work through various scenarios. This, in my opinion, needs to be a professional who is trained to work with victims, or perhaps a victim themselves, or even better, both. It should not be someone who will merely reinforce old habits and mistakes. Third, and this is often the tough one, everyone needs to realize that people in crisis will often have their faith and belief system shaken to the roots. The important thing to realize is that this is not necessarily permanent, nor does it need to be addressed and fixed immediately. I have seen too many situations where clergy immediately went into evangelism mode, to the detriment of the family member, because they were concerned that their congregant was doubting his or her faith, rather than accepting their statements and anger at the Almighty without judgment and knowing that this will be a period of personal growth that will take some time and perhaps gentle guidance to come to grips with. more ...
 
 
Should you physically comfort the person you are notifying - such as by hugging them?
 
1.  Virginia Hansen
 It's best to follow the victim's lead on this. Some people don't like being touched and others need the touch of others.
 
2.  Bill Jenkins
 Some people are comfortable with this, others are not. I think the best standard of practice is to let the family member indicate what they are comfortable with. They may hug you first. Appropriate expressions of sympathy are fine, and necessary, as far as I'm concerned. I know I hugged my victim advocates a lot during the trials. And I needed it.
 
 
Have you ever delivered a death notification to someone you suspected of being responsible for the death?
 
1.  Bill Jenkins
 I have not, but the legal obligation of the death notification is not up to discretion. You, of course, do not have to reveal any details of the case that you would feel would jeopardize the investigation. You might also find the suspect's reactions to the DN in some way revealing or telling.
 
2.  Janice Lord
 I have not. Have you, Bill? My thinking, though, is that you would deliver it the same way you deliver other notifications, but pay particular attention to reactions if you are later questioned by investigators.
 
 
What procedures should be in place to assure that those being notified are actual family members of the deceased?
 
1.  Janice Lord
 You can begin by asking a question about their relationship to the person who has died: Are you the father of Jimmy Jones? Are you the wife of Arthur Smith? If they are not, they will tell you who is.
 
2.  Bill Jenkins
 One of the scripts I recommend in my trainings is to do death notifications something like this: Mr. Jenkins, I'm very sorry to tell you that your son, William, was shot and killed at the restaurant where he was working tonight." Simple, to the point, unambiguous, and provides basic information. Everything else is just details. Notice that you identify the person you are talking to and the person killed. This is important. Good police work to ensure that the ID on the deceased is correct and verified is important as well. Every effort must be made on all fronts to make sure you deliver the right information to the right family. Sometimes death notifications are held up for a good while before positive ID of the victim is made, but for good reason, although this increases the possibility that the family will spend more time in limbo no knowing what has happened to their family member.
 
 
What if the person being notified has small children present? What special assistance should be provided under those circumstances?
 
1.  Janice Lord
 Tell the adults that you have a serious matter to discuss with them and ask if small children could go to another room. This is one of many reasons to notify in pairs -- so one person can take the children to a play room or bedroom. Witnessing the emotional collapse of parents is likely to be more disturbing to small children that the death itself. Once the notification has been made and the adults have become able to calm themselves, then another decision must be made about who will tell the children. Sometimes family members want to do it themselves. Sometimes they want the professional to do it, but in these cases the parent(s) should always be present to comfort the children.
 
 
What process should be used to determine who should deliver the notification?
 
1.  Bill Jenkins
 I think that will depend on the situation and who on the DN team (and I always believe that this is the best model) is available. There should always be a police presence at a DN in order to lend an authority to the proceedings and to make sure the family doesn't think this is s practical joke. (Really) Personality, experience, and preferences may dictate who goes first. Or, if it was a homicide, the responsiblity may be best handled by the officer. If a suicide, perhaps the mental health professional. Non-criminal traumatic loss, perhaps the Medical Examiner's or Coroner's official. I think it's important, though to make sure that the person doing the DN is someone of authority, rather than a chaplain or victim volunteer. Those people are vital for follow-up support, but probably should not be doing the death notification itself.
 
2.  Janice Lord
 It definitely should not automatically be done by the one who has delivered the most previously. That person may or may not still be an effective notifier. It should be someone who has been trained in notification. It should be someone who is not experiencing post-traumatic stress symptoms themselves. It should be someone who is able to empathize with the family, not just maintain a stoic, cold demeanor. It should be someone willing to follow up the next day or two to offer more updated investigation information and referral sources.
 
 
As a health care provider, how can the techniques you illustrate be used to give these notifications when the final outcome is uncertain, (may or may not include death, but can include limitless other possibilities)?
 
1.  Janice Lord
 Families want honest communication, and they prefer that it be delivered directly by the physician treating the patient if possible. As soon as you believe that death may be a possibility, tell them while assurring them that you and your team are doing everything you can to save the life of their loved one. Many hospitals are now allowing a family member to witness life-saving treatment, and those who request to be present are usually very grateful for having been given the opportunity. Be sure to tell them what they are going to see, however, and allow them to re-choose if they think it will be too upsetting for them.
 
 
Was the last notification you delivered as hard as the first? In other words, does it get easier?
 
1.  Ellie B.
 I don't think saying it gets easier would be the right way to put it. Instead, I think that the person doing the DN learns what to expect, and methods to do it that are as helpful as possible to the client. Ultimately, giving someone a DN is just as heart-wrenching for me today as the first time I needed to do it.
 
2.  Bill Jenkins
 I believe that the ability and technique improves over time, but the emotional toll is still powerful. Remember, a DN is a mutually traumatizing experience. You will be affected too, and because of that, you need time to decompress. This is one advantage of the crisis response team model giving you someone to talk to later. You need to take care of yourself. Recognize how hard this can be on you. Don't do DN's alone. Do talk about them afterwards to someone in your program or a professional. Don't bottle the emotions up from vicarious trauma or you'll find yourself in a real emotional quagmire. You are too valuable to us to lose.
 
3.  Janice Lord
 I think it does get easier if you have tools in your toolkit (from training or reading) that you can readily pull up as needed. On the other hand, it is always terribly hard. My belief is that if it ever becomes easy, you have lost your ability to be a compassionate notifier.
 
 
What are some things to avoid when doing a death notification?
 
1.  Janice Lord
 Avoid doing it any way that is not a personal notification. Avoid delivering it without verified basic information: Who died? When and how did they die? Where is the body now? Who can be called for more information?Don't notifiy a child under any circumstances. Don't try to make people feel better. It's impossible, and totally appropriate that they feel awful. This is very likely the worst thing that has ever happened to them. I don't want this to appear as a marketing adventure, but both Bill's book, What to Do When the Police Leave and my book, I'll Never Forget Those Words: A Practical Guide to Death Notification are small, readable, and affordable. They include a lot of suggestions for death notifications.
 
2.  Bill Jenkins
 You should try to avoid anything that would increase the trauma of the situation. Keep a low emotional profile. Maintain a level of professionalism while still being sympathetic. Avoid making promises you can't deliver on. Avoid platitudes and hollow sayings. Avoid counseling the family in areas you are not expert. Speak clearly and simply and don't beat around the bush. Avoid protecting the family. You need to use words like dead and killed. As hard as it is to do, the family cannot be put in a position of being able to deny what has happened. Don't over-manage the situation. Try to help them start exercising control again and making decisions.
 
 
While it is best practice to deliver a notification in person it is not always possible. What do you feel is the most appropriate way to continue to attempt to contact in person? Different approaches include: leaving an emergency card on the door requesting persons to contact dispatch and then a car is sent back out, leaving an emergency card with the coroners number on it or just keep going back hoping to locate some one. What would you suggest?
 
1.  Kathleen Adkins
 I'll never forget finding a well-intended law enforement card on my front door, from a school policeman needing to talk with me about a minor item. I thought for sure I had lost one of my children or family members
 
2.  Bill Jenkins
 One of the problems you run into here is letting someone know something is wrong before you can manage the process. This can be a very bad experience. Phone calls are NEVER good ways of doing a DN. Ideally, you should come back and check on the family as often as possible. Or find out from a neighbor when they are expected to return. Never give a DN message to a child. Situations are almost never ideal, but sometimes you just have to do the best you can.
 
3.  Janice Lord
 PLEASE don't leave a note on the door. Bill and I can tell you tons of stories about how this strategy turned into a disaster. You may ask neighbors if they know where the family member may be employed or might be and go there to deliver the notification. However, tell neighbors only that there has been a family emergency. Don't tell them about the death because the family may resent that someone else was told before they were -- AND it places the burden of notification on the neighbors. Sometimes, information about the family's whereabouts can be obtained from items on the victim's person, in the car, etc. You may find insurance cards with numbers to call to learn the employer. You may find a prescription bottle with a pharmacy name or physician's name on it, and they may know where the person works. If all else fails, wait and keep going back. Everyone deserves a personal notification.
 
 
As a police officer, I have delivered a few notifications over the years. Some folks have taken the news badly and been outwardly upset with the officers. What should we do when trying to help the family, but they are angry at him/her? I don't want to make a bad situation worse....
 
1.  Janice Lord
 Of course some people are angry. It can help neutralize the situation to say something like, If I had just been told this, I'd be angry, too! Let them ventilate all they want to and don't try to stop them unless they physically attack, which sometimes happens. In these cases, try to gently restrain them in a supportive way until they are able to calm themselves. No one cries forever, and no one stays angry forever. Just let it run it's course.
 
2.  Bill Jenkins
 The goal with a DN is to make a tragic situation as minimally traumatizing as possible. You can do things that will make it worse, you can do things that will make it as best as it can be. You will never remove the trauma from it altogether. Being sensitive to the family's immediate needs is important. Calling family and friends in to start building the support system is vital and you shouldn't leave before they arrive. Leaving materials with the family like Janice's or my books provides continued support after you go. Work in the crisis response team model so that the family will have access to as many resources as possible right away. They will be upset. They may be angry. Sometimes you have to do the best you can exercising your common sense and compassion as you can in the situation. Needless to say, there are some people who should never do them, and some people who seem to do better than others.
 
 
I am a victim advocate. When a child dies, what, if any, is the appropriate length of time to wait before contacting the family to offer services?
 
1.  Janice Lord
 I agree with Bill that families may need to know right away that Crime Victims Compensation an assist with funeral costs, and they may benefit from a brochure or flyer about things to do right away. However, don't overload them with books and brochures at first because they won't be able to concentrate well enough to read much for awhile. A week or two after the funeral may be the best time to re- contact them, explain your services, and offer more substantive materials or referrals.
 
2.  Bill Jenkins
 I think that you need to be sensitive to the family's needs but to make sure that services and resources are available from the very first moment. If you have information on planning funerals on short notice, they will need that right away, along with other things. The biggest problem I have seen is not that Victim Advocates get involved too early, it's that they get involved too late. Some programs don't contact a family until the case is ready to go to trial. I wouldn't be so concerned about getting involved too early if you have vital information and resources to offer. I'd be more concerned about getting to them too late. Proper staffing and priorities in your program are vital, of course. One good way of introducing you or your program to a family is by having a victim working with your program craft a letter or do a visit with you to add a personal connection.
 
 
What are some tips when delivering a death notification when there is a language barrier and one must use a translator?
 
1.  Janice Lord
 I'd like to add here that spiritual sensitivity is also key. Immigrants bring with them not only their unique language and cultural issues, but a spiritual perspective with specific requirements as well. In communities large enough, chaplains from every faith (Native American spirituality, Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Islam as well as Catholic and Protestant christianity) should be accessible to participate in death notifications.
 
2.  Bill Jenkins
 This is important. Many times, in the absence of an official translator, other members of a family are enlisted to translate. That is fine if there are adults in the home who can translate, but often, school-age children are the only ones available. This is a practice that absolutely must never be used. Children put in the middle of this situation will be deeply traumatized and be caused great harm. You may or may not be able to tell from the victim's name or nationality what culture they are from in your community. If you suspect that a translator will be needed, it is vital and essential that one go along with the DN team. To not do so is, pardon the strength of this statement, irresponsible and unforgivable. Our society is made up of many different cultures, many different languages. Our law enforcement and service providers must recognize this and provide translation services as needed. Obviously, there are times when it is not possible to know that someone will need translation, but whenever there is the slightest indication that there will be, a translator must be provided. Other than that, working with the translator pool so that they will know the protocols and terms used is important. If you must do a DN in a home with an adult translator from the family or neighborhood, remember to speak in short phrases and to use clear and simple language that can easily be translated.
 
 
What kind of training do you recommend for victim advocates who would like to be part of the death notification team?
 
1.  Bill Jenkins
 In addition to the resources Janice mentioned, I have developed a 1 12 hour to half-day workshop on death notifications that I give at NOVA and other conferences as well as when asked by local programs. I developed it while training the students at the Virginia Institute of Forensic Science and Medicine and it is always well-received. It is rigorous but takes less time than the longer, more in-depth trainings (which are excellent) and works well for those who are looking to refine their DN techniques rather than learn from scratch. You can contact me at www.willsworld.com or wbjpress@aol.com if you are interested. TTAC funding is often available for these types of programs and workshops.
 
2.  Janice Lord
 You will need to look around for trainings that may be offered near you. Mothers Against Drunk Driving offers very effective Death Notification trainings in many states. If your state has a Victim Assistance Academy and/or an annual victim assistance conference, ask planners to include this as a seminar topic. I mentioned Bill's book and mine in answering a previous question. While a live training with role-plays, etc. is most useful, if you can't find a training, reading should help you quite a bit.
 
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