Brake Family Liaison Officer Handbook: Breaking the bad news

Telling someone that a loved one has just lost their life is often said to be the hardest part of a police officer's work. It is certainly the worst possible news that anyone could receive. The way in which the message is delivered will always be remembered.   

When someone dies in a road crash, the circumstances are usually traumatic; the deaths untimely and sometimes involve more than one member of the family. The officer delivering the message is not immune to the trauma, particularly if the person who has been bereaved reminds them of their own family or background. Breaking the news to a personal friend or former colleague is particularly difficult.   

It is difficult to envisage a 'best way' of breaking bad news, but there are many things that can make a bad experience even worse.    

Case study: making a bad experience worse   
"I was woken at about 8 a.m. by a knock on the front door. I went downstairs and opened it to find two police officers, who were clearly nervous. One of them told me, "Your partner has been involved in an accident on the motorway. Do you recognise these?" He held up a plastic bag with a watch, a ballpoint pen and a wallet. I recognised them as belonging to Peter who had left for work as a taxi driver the previous night. There was blood in the bag and on the items. We went into the lounge and the officer said that they understood that Peter had been trapped in the wreckage, but did not know any more than that. They handed me a piece of paper with a handwritten telephone number and told me I should ring it for more information. Then they told me that they had another job to go to, asked me to sign for Peter's property and left the house. The whole episode took about five minutes. I rang the number, but it was incorrect and got me through to an elderly lady who had no idea what I was talking about. I rang my local police force, who had no record of an accident and they suggested I try neighbouring forces. Eventually I found a helpful inspector, who said he would make enquiries and get back to me. He phoned back about twenty minutes later and gave me another police force phone number to ring. I rang it, and was told that I should have had a message to ring the Coroner's Officer and meet him at the mortuary. This was the first I knew that Peter was dead. Peter died six years ago and I feel bitter about the way in which I was told."   

The good news is that there are 'good practice' methods that officers can follow when breaking bad news. These are not necessarily the methods that have been passed down over the years for example, delivering a death message used to be seen as a 'rite of passage' for new officers; a practice which is unacceptable, given the potential for getting it wrong.       

In some forces, it is usual for a trained FLO to deliver a death message after receiving a briefing from the Senior Investigating Officer (SIO) at the scene of the crash. This may be an officer who is 'called out' specifically to perform this role and will be in a position to continue to act as the FLO.       

In other forces, it is rare for the officer who will eventually act as FLO to be in a position to deliver the news themselves - the force's callout system, the geography of the police force area, a particular need for urgency, or duties at the crash scene can prevent them making a local notification straightaway. This means that the burden of delivering the death message may fall on section staff who are also called upon to deliver messages on behalf of other forces, or for deaths which result from suicide, drugs overdose, industrial accidents, sudden medical emergency and those which occur overseas. For example, Cumbria Constabulary stipulates that if an FLO cannot deliver the news themselves, a sergeant, tutor, or other experienced officer should deliver the message.   

Best Practice

Most work on determining best practice for basic death notification procedures has been carried out in the United States and includes a model published in 1992 by the Iowa Department of Justice. The model is summarized as:    

In Person

In Time

In Pairs

In Plain Language

and With Compassion.   

This model is used by a number of North American police departments and has been adapted by some British police forces, such as Cumbria. It is similar to training given to doctors on how to break bad news to patients.   

In Person
Anyone who could be described as a 'primary bereaved person', such as a partner, parent or child of the person who has died, should be informed face to face. Human presence is an important factor, as there is an immediate need for compassion and support. On learning that a loved one has been killed in an unexpected, violent manner, many people suffer a severe traumatic shock reaction and the officer carrying out the notification may be the only person available to offer support. Notification in person is common practice in the UK, with details being passed to other force areas for delivery by a local FLO when necessary. Telephone notification is not an acceptable practice. It is also important that no personal details be passed by insecure radio links, the situation can only be made worse if someone who has been bereaved finds out first from the media or third parties of the loss of their loved one.   

In Time
All 'primary bereaved' people should be notified as soon as possible after the event. No matter what the time of day or night, there is no benefit in saving the news till a 'better' time. There is no good time, full stop and US research shows that many bereaved people resent any unnecessary delay in informing them. When someone has been critically injured in a crash; prompt notification can be even more important - it might give a loved one the chance to see the injured person in hospital before they die.   

While there should be no unnecessary delay in carrying out a death notification, it is crucial that there is a very high degree of certainty of the identity of the person who has died. Death notifications are made even more difficult if, for example, the notifying officer has to confirm that someone owns a particular vehicle before they are able to say that someone has died. If a mistaken notification is made, albeit in good faith, initial relief may be replaced by anger at the unnecessary emotional suffering that someone has been put through.   

In Pairs   
Two people should attend to make a notification of unexpected sudden deaths. Immediate traumatic shock reactions vary from case to case and can include severe distress, withdrawal, outright denial, hysteria and even violence. Any such reaction is considered natural in such traumatic circumstances.   

Normally both of the people attending should be police officers although there are circumstances in which an officer might be accompanied by a member of the clergy, a doctor, a family friend or even a traumatic bereavement support worker. It can be preferable for a familiar face to be present to offer immediate support, as long as this does not cause any delay. For example when carrying out a notification in the workplace a supervisor or a close colleague, could be present. When visiting the home of the person who has been bereaved to break the news this is not often possible. In that case it is best for at least one of the notifying officers to be of the same gender as the bereaved and generally it is considered that a female/ male combination of officers works best.   

If the notifying officers travel in separate vehicles this increases their flexibility after the message has been delivered, for example, one of them could leave to collect a close friend, relative or child to be with the bereaved person. When a pair of officers attends to notify the bereaved, they should prepare themselves in advance by ensuring that they both know the names of the person who has died and the person who has been bereaved. They should decide in advance who will deliver the message itself.   

In Plain Language
With the exception of regular offenders, most people have very little personal contact with the police. They will naturally assume the worst if two police officers knock at their door late at night. In such a situation, fear and panic may set in, and they may not be able to focus on what is being said to them. The notifying officer must therefore deliver the message straight away and in simple, unequivocal, terms.   

The Iowa model calls for the notifying officers to identify themselves, ask to come in and get the person to sit down, confirming that they are the right person. In many cases it is the person who has been bereaved that answers the door. They want to know immediately why the police are calling and may not want to wait until they have taken the officers through to the lounge or kitchen and sat down. In such circumstances it may be appropriate just to ask to come in and speak inside, saying that there is urgent news to pass on. Once inside, out of view of neighbours or passers-by, the message should be delivered without delay.   

A useful phrase is "I have some very bad news I must tell you", followed by a direct statement of what has occurred, such as "Your husband has been involved in a car crash and I am sorry to have to tell you that he has died". It is much more effective to use the words 'dead', 'died', or 'killed'' rather than euphemisms such as "he didn't make it", "she was fatally injured", or "he's not coming back". Such phrases might seem easier to utter but they are very easily misunderstood by a bereaved person in their initial shock. It will often be necessary to repeat the message or to have to convince a bereaved person that you are telling the truth.   

Once the news starts to sink in, the bereaved person will need more information about circumstances, location, time of death, and so on. Officers should answer any questions the bereaved may have to the best of their ability, but should not speculate. A straightforward notification form outlining the circumstances of the crash, such as that used by Cumbria police, can be helpful. Forms can be faxed from one police station or force to another and serve as a useful aide-memoir for the notifying officer. They are not designed to be used as the means of breaking bad news.   

Working in pairs can be advantageous as one officer can remain with the bereaved whilst the other makes discreet follow-up enquiries. Depending on the exact working circumstances it can be useful to be able to make phone contact with an officer at the scene, though this should be done away from the person who has been bereaved, who might otherwise insist on speaking to the OIC directly.   

It is really important to refer to the person who has died by their name rather than as 'the body' or 'the deceased', which can sound unsympathetic, and the bereaved person will probably find it easier to be told that their loved one will be taken "to the hospital" rather than "the mortuary". It will almost always be appropriate to tell someone who is bereaved "I am sorry that this has happened".   

With Compassion   
The Iowa model states, "Your presence and compassion are the two most important resources you bring to death notification". Officers should try to react in a supportive way to the emotions of bereaved people and should also cultivate awareness of their own emotions. It is not unnatural to feel sympathy for people who have been bereaved, and this may even be expressed by the officer shedding a tear. This is far better than attempting to suppress emotions and appearing cold, callous and uncaring.   

Unless it is clear that the bereaved person and the officer share common beliefs, religion is a topic that is best left alone. Bereaved people in the US also report that phrases such as "I know what you are going through", "She wouldn't have known much about it" or "He had a good innings", which are uttered in a vain attempt to offer comfort, do not.   

Unless the bereaved person specifically requests it, the officers should never just deliver their message, then leave. Officers should allow plenty of time to provide information and support for a bereaved person and should make every effort to find and bring a close friend or relative to them.   

There may be a need for formal identification, but even when there is not, a bereaved person may still want to see the body of the person who has died. They should always be given this option, even when the person who has died has suffered horrific injuries an officer should never assume that someone will not want to see the body of a loved one, however badly it is damaged. In addition to providing transport to the hospital/mortuary, the officer can also prepare them for seeing the body by making them aware of what to expect in terms of apparent injuries.   

There may be personal items belonging to the person who has died which must be preserved and returned to the 'primary bereaved' person/ people. These should not be taken with the officers at the time of notification, but can be passed on later, in a caring manner and in an appropriate carrier. South Yorkshire Police, for example, have dark blue property bags marked with a simple force crest for returning personal items.   

Exit Strategy   
Once the message has been delivered and understood, a friend or relative is looking after the bereaved and arrangements are in hand for the deceased to be formally identified, it is time to consider the exit strategy.    

The officers who have carried out the notification should ensure that they leave the bereaved person with contact details for the FLO (if neither officer is going to act as FLO), the SIO or officer in the case and the Coroner's Officer. If the death has occurred in a different police force area, one of the notifiers should be prepared to act as a local contact. Ideally, if neither officer is going to act as FLO, they should wait until the FLO arrives, so they can introduce him/her to the bereaved person. If that is not possible, they should find out when the FLO will be making contact with the bereaved person and make sure that they have this information.   

Before taking their leave, the officers should ensure that a bereaved person has suitable transport to the hospital or morgue: the first priority of many bereaved people is to see their loved one's body immediately. Wherever possible this transport should be provided by the officers, as a bereaved person is likely to be in shock and unable to drive themselves anywhere safely.   

Case study
"My husband of six weeks had gone to work the previous evening and I was expecting him home at any time. At about 9.30 a.m. the police came to my house. There was a male sergeant and a female PC. The sergeant asked if they could come in as they had to talk to me urgently. As they stepped into the hall I asked what they wanted. The sergeant said that they needed to know if we owned a red Ford Escort and he told me its registration number. It was our car, I told him, and added that my husband Tom had taken it to work. He said that the car had been involved in a serious collision about an hour earlier and they believed that the driver was my husband. The sergeant said he had some bad news, that the driver had died in the collision and they needed to identify him. He asked if I had a photograph of my husband and when I showed him one he told me that it looked like the description of the driver. He asked if there were any children in the house and whether the police could contact anyone for me. I said that I wanted to go to my parents who lived nearby. The police officers took me there, and explained to my parents what had happened. They stayed with us until they were told that Tom had been taken to a hospital, and then arranged for my father and me to be taken to the hospital to identify him. They spoke to other members of my family and kept everybody informed about what was going on. The sergeant said he had to take some details and luckily my brother was available to help him with these as I was too upset. He added that he would need to get a statement but could leave that for a day or so until I felt ready to speak to him. The sergeant then gave me the names and telephone numbers of the officer who was dealing with the crash, and also the Coroner's Officer. Then they left the house so that I could get to the hospital to be with Tom."  

 Author: Simon Hepworth     Edited by: Cathy Keeler     Date written: 2005     Date updated: 2006    

Tags: police Family Liaison Officer road deaths