Discovery Guides Areas


The Bad News Bearers:
The Most Difficult Assignment in Law Enforcement

(Released May 2009)

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  by Emil Moldovan  


Key Citations






Death notification is a tough job. The telling of someone's passing is fraught with complications for both the recipient and the messenger. A review of the literature dealing with death notification indicates that regardless of who carries the message, training, experience and delivery style are critical to the grieving process and emotional well being of the recipients. Survivors can remember the delivery of the news well beyond the process of adjusting to the loss of a loved one. Messengers can help mitigate the news by planning, using carefully chosen words and an empathetically crafted style of delivery.

Law enforcement officers, medicolegal death investigators, doctors, nurses, paramedics, social workers and religious figures are called upon to make death notifications as part of their professional duties. This Discovery Guide discusses some facets of death notification and describes procedures and practices recommended for conveyance of a death notice. It describes some of the difficulties faced by professionals who deal in life and death issues, as well as how some have minimal training and experience, limiting them in this important task.

spooky death figure
Death, from the movie The Seventh Seal, 1957

The Death Knell

"For whom the bell tolls" is not only a line from a poem by John Donne and the title of a book by Ernest Hemingway, it is a method of delivering a death notification. According to James and Mary Chrissman, writing in the Macmillan Encyclopedia of Death and Dying, the custom of ringing a bell to announce a death originated in Europe and became an American cultural trait in rural areas such as Appalachia. In Tudor England it was called a "passing bell" or "soul bell." Ringing the bell with short pauses between rings indicated the age and provided clues for the listeners as to which villager died.

Another method used to announce local deaths in the small American towns of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, where no newspapers, telephones, or other means of fast conveyance existed, was to place a funeral notice in the window of a business. Passersby would read of the death and make arrangements to acknowledge the family's loss. (Crissman, 2002)

Death notification in modern times is much more complex. People seldom die at home surrounded by family and friends as in earlier times. The expansion of populations to urban environments has changed the predominant death location from the family bedroom to the hospital emergency room, care home, sidewalk or highway. Family is seldom present at the time of passing, leaving the job of breaking the bad news to someone else. Death is often unexpected and receiving the news is emotionally upsetting and often traumatizing. (Goodrum, 2005).

students with yearbooks
Students sign yearbooks in memory of a fallen classmate, Woodrow Wilson High School, Dallas, TX

When a family member suddenly dies, people experience emotions ranging from sorrow and guilt to extreme rage. (Miller, 2008b) The expressions of grief can be internalized or directed outward towards the bearer of the bad news. The feelings can be exacerbated or assuaged simply by the words and demeanor of the person carrying the message. Survivors tell of remembering, in detail, events of the notification. They recall every word delivered, the tone and voice inflection, even years later.

Those charged with the burden of bearing tragic news carry an awesome responsibility. They must be compassionate and yet remain detached from the emotions of the moment. According to Leash (1995), they must possess an understanding of the dynamics of the grieving process in order to help healing begin and not contribute to a continued emotional burden for the recipients.

Every death notification is different. The death notice of a terminally ill patient conveyed by a doctor in the hospital waiting room is different from one made at the home of an accident victim in the middle of the night. While both inform of the passing of a family member, each can have different and lasting effects on the survivors. The hospital death notification can meliorate bad news simply because of the surroundings. The nocturnal visit by the police can leave other impressions. The mere presence of police on the doorstep, regardless of time of day, usually only means something terrible has happened, or is about to happen. The uniformed police officer carries the connotation of arrest, incarceration, or in the least, citations, and possible court appearance. The news of a death in the family may exacerbate negative images directed toward law enforcement officers from the public they are sworn to serve and protect. Regardless to whom the responsibility of delivering bad news falls, it is never easy and places stresses on all parties in the notification process. (Miller, 1995)

Go To The Messengers

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