Suggestions for First Responders . . . Dealing with the Sudden Death of a Child

One of the most difficult tasks facing first responders/emergency rescue personnel  is notifying parents of the sudden death of their child. It is essential that first responders identify and endeavor to meet the needs of the surviving family while seeing that the scene of death is preserved intact for the proper authorities.

Notification of the Family

Information identifying the child should never be released to the news media prior to family notification. Every attempt should be made to notify the family quickly and directly. However, the parents should never be notified of the death of their child by telephone. 

Ideally, notification should be made in person by two qualified personnel in uniform to help verify their identification. Because individuals react to the death of their child in various and often unexpected ways, one member of the team should communicate the information while the other carefully observes the reaction of the family, ready to help.

The team should break the news in steps:

1. Confirm the identity of the persons with whom you are speaking as family members.

2. Advise them there has been an emergency.

3. Advise them the situation was so serious a death has occurred.

4. Name the child who died.

Use the two most important words: We’re sorry. Never refer to the child who died as “the deceased” or “the body.”

The team should use the child’s name whenever possible. Inform the family of what happened in clear, jargon-free language, answer questions tactfully and honestly, and provide as much information as possible without jeopardizing an investigation.

Once family members have been notified, they should not be left alone. Do not be afraid to offer comfort, such as a shoulder on which to cry. Ask the parents if they would like to have someone contacted to assist them such as a relative, spiritual leader, neighbor, coworker, or grief specialist.

If the child has been transported to the hospital, family members will often want to go there to be with others they know and to learn more information. Sometimes the child has been transported instead to the morgue and identification may be needed. The first responder team should transport or arrange transportation so the grieving parents and other family members will not have to drive. If family members need to identify the body or wish to see the child, a brief explanation concerning the appearance of the body may be necessary. Or, it may be necessary to explain why it is not possible to view the body.

Helping the Family at Home

When a child dies at home, care should be taken to treat the family and the dead child with dignity. The responders should stay on the scene until proper authorities arrive and should be prepared to respond to the family’s grief reactions. These reactions may include denial, hysteria, anger, or shock.

Helping the Family at the Hospital

When the child is taken to the hospital, often the family will be placed in a room to wait . . . and wait . . . and wait. The family desires and appreciates regular updates, whether there is no new information or if the news confirms their worst fears.

While first responders feel pressure to return the team to service, some contact with the waiting family members will reduce the overall trauma for the family and help them to accept the news of their child’s death. If the team members are unable to spend time with the family, they should refer the family to the proper hospital authorities, who can provide assistance. If possible, leave a name and phone number so that the family may call later if they have unanswered questions.

Family Assistance After the Death

Because the positive resolution of grief following the death of a child is a long-term goal that can take many, many years, the family may find it helpful to know that assistance is available. First responders should become familiar with the various support resources in the community and offer to provide that information.

The Compassionate Friends is a national self-help organization offering friendship, understanding, and hope to families that have experienced the death of a child. Additional resources to help the grieving family may be found through state youth and family services, victim/witness units, the United Way Human Services Directory, and state self-help clearinghouse directories

As their name implies, “first responders” are normally the first on the scene and the first to notify family members about a child’s death. If first responders are honest, direct, and caring, they will help to ease the pain of the family’s grief process.

First responders should consider debriefing and possible counseling after handling a stressful situation such as the death of a child—especially when they have been unable to save that child in a hands-on situation. It is not unknown for this extreme stress to cause competent and caring first responders to leave their jobs—and this is a loss to all involved.

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The current printing of this brochure was sponsored by
by Steve and Paige Czirr
in memory of their beloved daughter Abby


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.