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Bob Morgan

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A Death Message

Posted: 01/06/2012 08:47

Knocking on someone's door to tell them someone close to them has died - possibly a husband, wife or child - is one of the most difficult jobs the police do. In the Metropolitan Police it was called a 'death message'. There was no training for it - simply a convention that the probationers (junior officers) should do it for the 'experience' though I suspected that this was because the more experienced officers simply did not want to do it. Did we fear the reaction of the wife or husband, father of mother? Or did we fear glimpsing into the horror of the situation we were about to put them in? The older officers were more likely to have families I suppose.

As we gained experience some of us realised that sending round a nervous probationer was not doing the best we could - especially when it involved the death of a child or a partner.

People like doctors and nurses have to give the worst of news to people on a regular basis and theirs has to be a very difficult job but there seems something especially difficult about going to someone's house and within a minute of knocking on the door giving them unexpected news that will change their lives forever.

The sight of uniform officers at the door has driven some mothers to a state of terror even before anything is said (often fathers are quiet) - if you were there for something less horrible you said it straight away - the worst was often assumed.

What do you say when it is the worst news - how do you say it what words do you choose?
You have to make sure they are the 'right people' (an unfortunate phrase in this context) - you cannot make a mistake with this of course. A simple question - "do you have a daughter called ...?" Then say it straight away "I'm sorry to have to tell you..." or "I have some terrible news..."

To be frank I don't really know what it was like for those that received the news but I don't think there are any special words to make it any less worse.

I think it was best if we showed that in some way the death of someone so close to them mattered to us in some way.

Obviously we could never feel the full horror of what they felt listening to the shocking news - nor should we because we needed to keep control of ourselves to help them. Personally I found it all too easy - in some cases - to feel some small part of the shock they must have felt - whether this was some sort of real empathy or just imagination I don't know.

I will never forget the face of one mother as I told her that her only daughter had died - it was the second such message we had done that night - both from the same incident. At one point I found it so unbearable that I turned my back on her, just for second - what a thing to do? I hope - and it is only a hope, that she saw it mattered to me, that the people who brought this worst of news did not do it lightly.

After you have told them then offer them as much information about what had happened - offer to take them to where it happened, spend some time talking about it - but not too much. Make sure they have someone to look out for them - make sure they know what will happen next - refer them to anyone that could help. Then walk away and leave them to find some way of dealing with it. If this sounds a bit clinical then so be it, but you may find yourself dealing with something else within minutes of leaving them.

It was a job we were paid to do but for me (any many others I suspect) it was the most difficult of jobs.

Once we took turns waiting at a grandmother's house where a young grandchild had died by accident - we were waiting for the parents, who knew nothing about it to return. This time they did not come back on my watch and I was very glad of it.

 
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