Bereavement due to traumatic death

Messages to professionals and policy makers

A traumatic death involves many professionals, especially if a prosecution follows. We asked people whether from their experiences they had any advice for the professional groups they dealt with – including police liaison officers, coroners, judges, counsellors, doctors and policy makers (also see ‘The Police Family Liaison Officer’s role' and ‘The role of the funeral director’).

People bereaved by a sudden and traumatic death understand that the incident may seem routine to the professionals, but it can be deeply offensive if the professionals do not acknowledge and respect its overwhelming importance to friends and family.

To police officers

  • Use appropriate language when talking to victims of crime. Use the word “accident” only when you are sure that no one was responsible for the death.
  • Give the dead some dignity and speak of them respectfully.
  • Give grieving relatives dignity too.
  • Tell families as much as possible as soon as they want to know.
  • Be honest about what happened when talking to families.
  • Make frequent contact with the bereaved family if that is what they want.
  • Tell people where they can find support, counselling and practical help.
  • Help families to contact the ambulance crew if they want to know what happened in the ambulance, or medical staff if they want to know what happened in intensive care.
  • Be sympathetic when dealing with families. People are not just “cases”.
  • Some people may want to see and touch the dead body as soon as possible.
  • While bereaved people are viewing the body be quiet, respectful and sensitive to their needs.
  • Make sure a family has been warned if an offender is allowed out on bail or has been given parole.
  • Get to know the community in which you are working.  
  • Don’t be afraid to deal with issues which relate to “honour” or “izzat” in the Asian community because you may be able to prevent someone being harmed or killed.

To coroners and judges

  • Give families as much information as possible if they want it.
  • Don’t treat cases as if they are on a conveyor belt.
  • Find out whether a bereaved family wants the post-mortem report before sending it.
  • Think carefully before giving bail to a violent offender.
  • Consider sentencing carefully. People bereaved through trauma often feel that a sentence is too lenient.

To funeral directors

  • Make sure families know that they have many options when planning funeral arrangements.

To counsellors and therapists

  • Be patient.
  • People differ, so assume nothing.
  • Find experts in the field to care for people bereaved through trauma.
  • Be aware that people's beliefs differ.
  • Be prepared to listen and accept people’s experiences without always trying to solve their problems.
  • Don’t pretend to understand if you don’t, or aren't sure.
  • Continue to offer help even if help is at first rejected.
  • Consider calling the family months (or even years) later to make sure they are all right.

To doctors and those training doctors

  • Medical students who have had some experience of life may make better doctors.
  • Provide more training in how to recognise and treat post-traumatic stress disorder.

To policy makers

  • Families need more help after a verdict of not guilty, or after a verdict of manslaughter rather than murder. Families should be allowed to appeal.
  • Bereaved families need a Victims’ Commissioner.

Sara Payne was appointed Victims' Champion in 2009. This was a one year post. The Government appointed a Victims' Commissioner in 2013 whose role is to promote the interests of victims and witnesses..

Last reviewed October 2015.

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