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Informing relatives of death no easy task for authorities

Norwalk Reflector Staff • Oct 29, 2015 at 12:43 PM

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the final installment in a three-part series on suicide.

Norwalk Police Officer Dave Ditz remembers having to tell a woman her son died in a traffic crash. It was obvious that he couldn't simply share the news and then leave her alone.

"I was with her for an hour, an hour and a half, waiting for (her) informal support structure to arrive," Ditz said. "I don't think anybody needs to be left alone with that."

About three or four times a year, the officer notifies residents about a loved one's death or suicide.

"It's gonna sound cold, but you have to use the word 'dead,'" Ditz explained about referring to the deceased. The reason, he said, is because using "better place" or "gone" leads to speculation that the situation was better than it actually was.

Although telling a person that someone is "dead" sounds blunt, the officer uses "very soft" tones. People sometimes respond by being hysterical or totally devastated, in which Ditz said they "basically shut down."

"You get the whole spectrum of emotions. You never know what it's going to be," he said.

After notifying someone about a death, officers then offer to contact another relative, friend or clergy. "You get someone there they can trust," Ditz added.

"It's always a bad thing when a police officer comes to the door," he said. "It just adds lot of stress."

Equally challenging in telling someone about a death is knowing when or how to leave afterwards.

Ditz attempts to "read the person to see how they are going to take it." That reaction means the officer might need to stay around for a while or "scoot out" quietly.

Huron County Sheriff's Detective Sgt. Dane Howard, like all officers when dealing with suicides, refers the victim's relatives to a mental health professional or clergy.

"Before we leave, we give them resources for things available to them," he said.

The detective pointed out there are many times a relative unfortunately discovers a loved one's body after a suicide.

Major Greg Englund, in his 26 years with the sheriff's office, has done death notifications about five or six times. He said there are times when the coroner's office, a doctor or hospital will notify relatives about deaths.

"We'll (also) do it when there is a criminal investigation," Englund added. "It's bad when you have to do a death notification. ... It's very tough on an officer when they have to do that."

Ditz has heard relatives express "a tremendous amount of guilt" because they didn't know the person was having problems. He believes that can lead to speculation that they should have been more aware of the warning signs or symptoms.

"A lot of time the family feels guilty because they don't think they did enough," Ditz said. "It eats them up tremendously."

Chief Kevin Cashen said his officers are supposed to do limiting counseling with relatives, especially those who are hysterical, after a suicide.

"We work at calming people down, to conduct what we call a 'soft interview,'" he explained. "We use a soft voice ... and we try to explain why we are asking the questions we are asking."

Mental health professionals can set up emergency appointments for families dealing with a relative's death or suicide.

Cashen believes first responders have an advantage over grieving relatives because they have developed a "professional response mode" that helps them not personalize the situation.

"Typically, family members don't have that luxury," he said.

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