When a Law Officer Responds to the Death of a Child

“We normally go into a chaotic situation and bring peace. This is a peaceful situation . . . and our news will create chaos.”
Lieutenant Carl McDonald
Wyoming Highway Patrol

When you face the toughest assignment you will ever have . . .

Dispatch receives an emergency call. You respond to a scene where a child has died. The cause of the death is not important, whether it be from an accident, murder, suicide, illness, drowning, SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome), or a cause that is simply unknown.

When a child dies, families face a tragedy that will change their lives forever.

How you treat the family in the early moments and hours of their grief will have a lasting impact. In most police departments, a police chaplain trained in death notification is not available. This means the approach you take in notifying the family will greatly affect how those family members begin to deal with their grief.

Chances are you have never met this family, yet you will now become a part of their lives.

Parents’ love for their children, of any age, includes a fierce natural desire to protect them from all harm. A parent’s inability to prevent the death from happening, even when nothing could have been done, leads to an overwhelming sense of failure and helplessness.

During and following a tragedy involving the death of a child, a law officer’s many duties include dealing with the intense emotions of grieving parents and family members who may be suffering from shock. The following suggestions from bereaved families that have experienced the death of a child may prove helpful to you:

  • Always deliver the news in person in uniform, never by telephone, and preferably with a police chaplain, a second officer, and/or a victim advocate present. Even if the family lives in another state, contact law enforcement authorities there to deliver the news personally, providing them with as much information as possible to answer the family’s questions.
  • Think about how you (or a loved one of yours) would want to be treated. This is a time when it is important for you to remove the emotionless barrier so often required of law enforcement officers. Eye contact, a calm quiet voice, and a gentle touch convey caring and compassion.
  • Express your sympathy while showing sincerity and compassion as you break the news that a child has died. Stay away from a clinical demeanor and expressions such as “the deceased,” “the body,” and “he or she expired.” Use the child’s name and the word “died.”
  • Ask the family who you can call for them, possibly a relative, a neighbor, or a member of the clergy. Besides the need to be comforted, persons who have just received such shocking news will often feel numb and “in a fog,” leaving them vulnerable and at high risk for an accident, especially when left alone.
  • Be prepared to answer the question “can I see my child?” If it’s possible, offer to arrange transportation to the hospital or other location, being aware that grief can impair driving. Or, be prepared to explain why the family may not be able to see their child at this time. You should also be prepared to answer the second most common question, “Did he/she suffer?”
  • Allow family members the freedom to express their feelings. Acute grief is confusing and often illogical. Recognize that they may show signs and symptoms of severe stress and panic, ranging from silence, to tears, to extreme anger. They may express feelings of fear, blame, and guilt. Even though you cannot “fix” the situation, by taking the time to listen to the family’s sorrow, you have helped.
  • Avoid judgmental statements. Parents feel responsible for not having protected their child . . . even when they had no control over the circumstances.
  • Always be honest with the family, telling them as much as you can. Explain why you may not be able to answer all their questions.
  • Reassure them of your willingness to help. They may feel intimidated by your role as an authority figure.
  • Be knowledgeable about available resources within your agency or community. Make this information known to them, including local support groups such as The Compassionate Friends.
  • Follow up with a phone call and a visit whenever possible. Consider bringing with you specific brochures from The Compassionate Friends that may apply, such as "To the Newly Bereaved," “Understanding Grief When a Child Dies,” “The Sudden Death of a Child,” “When a Child Dies by Suicide,” “When Your Child Dies by Homicide,” “Caring for Surviving Children,” “Parents Who Are Now Childless,” “When a Brother or Sister Dies,” and “When a Child Dies, The Compassionate Friends Can Help.” This interaction gives tangible evidence that you and your department care. It will mean more to the family than you will ever know and you will have become an important part of their healing.

You will make a difference. Many family members who have been most successful in dealing positively with their loss note they could see and feel that the person(s) from law enforcement cared. The beginning phase of acceptance and cooperation will be there, if they see that you are sincere.

It is important to understand that a death notification, for the most part, is given one time by a police officer to a family. One time. This means that an officer has one chance to say the right words, in the right tone, with just the right degree of compassion . . .

Lieutenant Ronald S. Bateman
Anne Arundel County Police, Maryland

Bereaved families will always remember you . . . what you said and how you said it.
 

Dedicated to the law officers
who have learned the importance of compassion.
Their kindness will live on
in the hearts of every grieving family they touch.


©2008-2010 The Compassionate Friends, USA - All rights reserved. These materials are protected by U.S. copyright and are provided here for personal use only. Reproduction for mass distribution or for use on any website is prohibited.

--------------------

The current printing of this brochure was sponsored by
the Arlington and Fairfax Virgina Chapters of The Compassionate Friends
in memory of all children who have died too soon.

--------------------

TCF brochures may be purchased at a nominal cost through The Compassionate Friends by calling 877-969-0010 or by going to the Resource Section of The Compassionate Friends national website. You can sponsor a brochure printing through our Brochure Program.