A primer on Death Notification Teams

I’m currently writing book three of my art thriller trilogy. The other day I was writing away, minding my own business, when I found myself in new territory. I have never written a scene with a law enforcement officer telling the victim’s next of kin about the death. Since my previous books have been cozies, the protagonist usually found the body. In my thrillers, the protagonist has seen more murders than anyone should, or she learns about the death from someone.

So, how is a death notification handled in a professional, dignified, and compassionate way? LEOs are trained to use a four-step process.

Step One: Plan
This includes making a positive ID of the decedent, locating the next of ki, and selecting a trained Death Notification Team. The team may include law enforcement, a victim advocate, a medical examiner/coroner, or a chaplain. Death notifications are never conducted by one officer. In the team of two the primary officer delivers the death notification. The support officer is responsible for scene safety and for monitoring reactions.

Step Two: Prepare
Collect accurate information to be able to answer the family members’ questions. In addition to “how do you know it is my loved one?” frequent questions include:
• “What happened?”
• “Where did the death occur?”
• “When did this happen”

Step Three: Deliver
Confirm the identity of the person answering the door. Then ask to enter the home. Encourage all parties to sit down (the officers and family members.) The primary notifier should briefly review what happened before informing them of the death. One source recommends starting with the simple phrase, “I have bad news.”
Reactions vary. There may be shock, disbelief, denial, fear, anger, confusion, immobilization, fight or flight. All are normal. Officers should use the decedent’s name and not language such as “the body” or “remains.” He/she should say the word “dead” or “died” several times.
Answer any questions honestly. This is where the preparation mentioned in step two is used.
Ask if there is anyone they can contact. Do not leave the next of kin alone. Many jurisdictions leave information on coping with grief and community resources, like crime compensation, with the family.
Request to follow up within 24 hours.

Step Four: Follow Up
Once the Death Notification Team leaves the family, they should discuss the delivery and the next of kin’s reaction. For stress reduction, they should also discuss their own reactions.
In the follow-up with the family, there may be additional questions, and the LEO can give additional information. For instance, about the decedent’s personal effects.

I hope this helps the next time you write a scene with a Death Notification.

Lane Stone


  1. Good procedural listing, Lane.
    In the UK, most times a Family Liaison Officer is offered if the death is suspicious. This officer serves the two-fold purpose of keeping the victim’s family award of the investigation and procedures, and of mining the family for useful information.

  2. Thank you, Lane! Yes, Marni. I was going to mention British Family Liaison Officer. When I wrote my Anne Boleyn mystery (set now), I came to realize how differently the British do it than Americans.

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