Perhaps the most difficult function in the crisis response process is the initial death notification to family members. You are the messenger of usually the worst news an individual can receive.
Typical of the process as a whole, different circumstances will present variables in the notification process. No two notifications are going to be the same. When possible the notifier should be accompanied by a police officer or sheriff. If law enforcement is not available, then another first responder or clergy would be appropriate. Obviously, to show up at someone’s door accompanied by police immediately sends concerning signals to the person being notified. It is important that you proceed with the notification expeditiously. Introduce yourselves and verify the name of individual you are attempting notify. Make certain that nothing is said until you have the individual you intend to notify in your presence and verify their relationship to the deceased. Ask if you can come in and discuss an emergency situation.
The person who initially answered the door will press to know what is wrong. Avoid the temptation to answer their pleas. Ask if there is anyone else in the home and invite them to join you. Once everyone is assembled and sitting down it is time to directly and without embellishment go to the bad news. Be direct, tell them that you regret to inform them that “John Doe” died in a car accident this afternoon. (Or whatever the cause of the fatality). Use the word died so there is no confusion or question as to the condition of the victim.
The natural response will involve a tirade of questions from what happened to where their loved one is located. Their first instinct will be the desire to rush to them. Answer their questions as best as possible. If no one else is available to act in a support capacity at the time of notification, ask who you can call and ask that they come to the home to assist. This individual may be another relative, a personal friend or a neighbor if there is a close relationship. After the initial emotional outpouring be prepared for the emotions to recycle as new people are brought into the situation.
Avoid at all costs any telephone notification even when notifying out of area members of the family. Request that the police agency in that area assist you with the notification by delivering the notification in person. Obviously, if it is not possible to get someone to do it in person, get permission from the family to provide the bad news over the phone.
When the initial emotional waters are calmed and some level of support system is established it is appropriate to broach the subject of selecting a funeral home. It will be found that people have given little thought as to who will help them with final arrangements. In the event, particularly with elder folks, final arrangements have already been discussed and planned for it will be a matter of placing and appropriate phone call notifying the funeral home of the death. Generally, at a most difficult time, the crisis client will have to be asked to make a “buying” decision with little forethought. The Crisis Responder should not make a specific recommendation but provide a couple of options, if and as available. It is very useful to have knowledge of the various options and their general pricing. If money is an issue with the family and you are aware of the various pricing structures those on the lower end of the pricing scale would be recommended. Over time, you will be a sense as to who will react in a timely professional manner and what service providers may be more problematic. It is important to become familiar with the options in your area for veterans.
Once arrangements have been made, the you can again express your regrets and remove yourself from the scene.
For more information concerning the process of Crisis Response Management, see Lesson #7 – Dealing With Death, Part 3 – An Unattended Natural Death.