Delivering Life-Altering News with Compassion

Law enforcement officers routinely respond to chaotic situations and bring order. But, when given the assignment to deliver news of the death of a loved one, officers enter into an orderly situation and bring chaos.

Those tasked with making notifications are most frequently uncomfortable in the role of delivering the life-shattering news; they often feel untrained, unprepared, and as if they are improvising their way through a difficult assignment.

A motor officer from Nebraska speaks about a collision where two teenagers on a motorcycle were killed by an impaired motorist: “I think about the collision and re-live my contact with the parents each time I drive by the location,” he says. “I often wonder if I said the right thing, said too much, or could have said something different to help the parents cope.”

A DUI specialist from a California agency recalls a collision where a 20-year-old was killed by a repeat drunk driver. The young woman’s mother asked to meet him at the scene of the crash. The officer recalls, “Answering her questions about how her daughter was killed is, to this day, one of the hardest things I have ever done in my life. Later during a sentencing hearing I was asked to explain how I felt during that meeting. It is the only time I have ever lost my composure in court.”

An officer from Minnesota says, “The days when you get the call from dispatch to go to a stranger’s house who doesn’t know you and tell them that a family member has been killed gives me a feeling that significantly affects me every time… I feel completely unprepared.”

At a very basic level, law enforcement officers are problem solvers. However, officers have to respond to the aftermath of traffic collisions, heart attacks, drownings, and an array of other traumatic events, where it becomes their responsibility to deliver the news of a person’s death to their loved ones. Delivering a notification is a problem officers cannot solve; it’s a duty that runs contrary to their nature.

When facing the role of notifying a family of a death, the assigned officer has only one chance to make the moment count in a manner that does not create more trauma for the survivors. Whatever is said and what gestures are used will be remembered forever in the minds of the receivers.

Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) provides Death Notification Training to law enforcement, emergency medical technicians, medical professionals, coroners, funeral directors, and other first responders across the United States. The organization offers the following 10 steps for officers seeking to prepare for a compassionate notification.

  1. Be certain of the identity of the deceased. Errors have been made that cause irreparable damage to an agency’s credibility.
  2. Notify loved ones as soon as possible. Social media and electronic connectivity continuously compete with officers’ ability to be timely.
  3. Deliver notifications in person and in pairs whenever possible. Use a team approach and plan in advance who will speak. That person should be available to the family for follow-up later.
  4. Ask if you can enter the home. Devastating news should never be delivered on a doorstep.
  5. Use the name of the person who died. Always refer to them by name and refrain from terms such as “the body,” along with any other impersonal terms such as “driver” or “passenger.”
  6. Inform the family simply and directly, with warmth and compassion. Use the term “died” or “dead” In order to leave no room for any misinterpretation of your words. The words chosen are often remembered exactly and forever by the receiver.
  7. Answer all questions honestly. If possible, anticipate what questions may be asked and know the answers. If you do not know the answer, say so and offer to find out.
  8. Plan to remain there as long as it takes, offering to assist in making calls and ensuring that no one is left alone or without transportation.
  9. Provide written information on resources that are available to victims’ families, including your contact information.
  10. Finally, call the next day to let them know you care.

There is a pressing necessity for agencies to rebuild trust within their communities. Compassionate notifications are an opportunity for a department to train officers to deliver a respectful notification and a genuine offering of help and support at a critical time of need. It’s a vital service that can build trust between law enforcement agencies and the citizens they serve and protect. To a grieving family, a demonstration of compassion, respect, and care when they find out their loved one has died and their lives will never be the same goes a long way in helping families find hope and healing.♦

MADD is the largest nonprofit in the United States working to end drunk driving, help fight drugged driving, support the victims of these crimes, and prevent underage drinking. MADD supports drunk and drugged driving victims and survivors at no charge through local victim advocates, its 24-Hour Victim Help Line 877-MADD-HELP, and at MADD Victim Services offers training and materials for law enforcement and first responders. For more information, contact MADD Victim Services at 877-275-6233 or

Please cite as

Carl J. McDonald, “Delivering Life-Altering News with Compassion,” The Police Chief 83 (April 2016): web-only article.