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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.
 

Cynthia wants professionals talking with bereaved people to use appropriate language.

Cynthia wants professionals talking with bereaved people to use appropriate language.

Age at interview: 64
Sex: Female
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Have you got a message for professionals? Either the police or coroners or…?
 
The first message would be to deal with reality. Don’t use language which is inappropriate or pretends that something awful hasn’t happened really. “Just a momentary lapse in concentration”, you know, “sad accident.” No, if criminal behaviour is involved, call it a crime. If it’s a crash or a collision or a death, use the language of reality. Deal with the family honestly and openly, and if you’re having problems in knowing how to speak to them, ask them, give them a chance to tell you how they want to be spoken to. And don’t, don’t avoid them. Don’t hide away.
 

Patsy suggests that professionals must remember that those bereaved by a traumatic death may be...

Patsy suggests that professionals must remember that those bereaved by a traumatic death may be...

Age at interview: 61
Sex: Female
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Are there any other professionals you’d like to give a message to?
 
Well I just think all professionals should remember that they are people first and professionals after and if they deal with people in the way they need to be dealt with, then they will get the response, the response will be that if you treat somebody well, you will get that response from them depending on the situation as well, because sometimes you treat people well and because of where they are they are very aggressive and things like that but you can never put fire out with fire you must always have nice cool calm water to put that out, so it’s about knowing how to deal with people in every given situation, we need to learn those skills, people skills, it’s very, very important because our lives are about people.
 
By people skills would you just like to say what you mean by people skills?
 
People skills, it's learning how to deal with people when they’re angry, When they’re alright we can always deal with them but when they’re angry, when they going through trauma when things are happening to them, its about learning how to deal with them, how to come to them and what to say to them and how to be with them, you know, these are some words like gentleness, kindness, you know, patience, endurance these are the words that are very, very important in the lives of every one of us because all of us are going to be in the same place at some time wanting the same thing, give as you expect to, treat someone as you expect them to treat you.
 

Shazia wants professionals to raise awareness about honour based violence and honour based...

Shazia wants professionals to raise awareness about honour based violence and honour based...

Age at interview: 28
Sex: Female
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Have you got any message for professionals or policy makers?
 
I would… I would say to professionals to please, please raise the awareness and issues around honour based violence and honour killings, please do not think it’s part of culture, tradition, to suffer any abuse, I know it’s not part of my culture or tradition to be abused. Please talk about these issues as they’re real today and they’re happening in the UK. We hear about more and more honour killings in the UK, we hear that we have 10 to 15 a year in the UK, and to please use this opportunity to raise the awareness on honour killings and honour based violence to help other victims. And don’t be frightened to deal with the issues which relate to ‘honour’ or relate to ‘izzat’ because you may be preventing someone being harmed or seriously 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.
 

Godfrey and his wife felt entitled to know more about how their son died. People should not have...

Godfrey and his wife felt entitled to know more about how their son died. People should not have...

Age at interview: 77
Sex: Male
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And we, we’ve been lucky my wife and I, and the only thing we’ve been unlucky about is not being able to get this information that we felt we were, should’ve had, and entitled to, I think that was unacceptable, and still think it’s unacceptable, and I would like to see us having a much more open society and that information should be much more easily available for people, and they shouldn’t have to fight to get it, and far too many people have to do that in so many areas of life, and I think the whole legislation we have, the freedom of information act makes a mockery of it, because there seems to be reasons why it isn’t actually applied.
 

After a mass disaster Rosemary says that the police must remember that individuals are involved....

After a mass disaster Rosemary says that the police must remember that individuals are involved....

Age at interview: 65
Sex: Female
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And finally have you got any message for any professionals?
 
I think, I think the police particularly probably need to look at their procedures to make sure that with these particular circumstances where there, it’s not just a personal thing, it’s a wider thing, that the processes and policies, they have actually, you know, do take account of the individual as well as the generality and I know that’s really hard for them and I know that they try but I think it’s something they need to keep looking at basically, I really do, I think it’s so easy to be insensitive without meaning to I think. Or on the other hand too sensitive so you just appear to be a bit, you know, inept, so I think yes that’s probably what I’d say. I guess I’d probably say as well that I’m not really sure the Coroner’s should be allowed to send people post mortem reports under any circumstances and I don’t think it should be a matter of choice of the individual coroner frankly, I cannot see any reason under any circumstances, I’ve thought about this quite a lot when I was answered it, answered the questionnaire, why any individual coroner should think it was the right thing to do I just don’t understand why.
 
I’ve never heard of that happening actually.
 
Well no but I was told, the Ministry of Justice told me because I asked them.
 
I know some people ask to see them but that’s different.
 
Yes, but to just be sent it seemed to me to be extraordinary. I mean because quite honestly, okay it had been in two envelopes and there’d been a certain amount of publicity about it happening but it didn’t seem to be at all to be a good answer, I mean I just thought it was unacceptable frankly and I’m not, I still do, I mean I always will I just think that my husband had to, I mean okay he could have chosen not, I mean he did know what it was as it turned out, but he could have chosen not to look at it but it did seem to me, I mean he’s pretty annoyed about it too because he said he would have been devastated to find I’d looked at it and so would I, so I think it’s not… I think the trouble is it would stay in the imagination, you know, and I don’t want that to happen really.
 

Stephen thinks that judges should impose tougher sentences to people who kill by dangerous driving.

Stephen thinks that judges should impose tougher sentences to people who kill by dangerous driving.

Age at interview: 49
Sex: Male
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It’s not the police you fault. They do their job so thoroughly. I’ve got no qualms whatsoever with the police.
 
It’s the sentencing, the judges who are not giving out the right punishment. They, they just don’t seem to be improving on it, you know, year on, year out. It’s just the same.
 
Do you think a longer sentence would be a deterrent and, or, and it would help you as well because you’d feel better? Is that what you’re saying? The two?
 
Yes. Yes. I mean, for killing somebody death by dangerous driving, seems not, not right. Like in America for example they get charged with vehicle manslaughter…
 
…which is a much tougher sentence. They go to jail for years.
 
Why can’t we do that? How many more people have to die before a reasonable sentence is reached? 
 
But you still called it an accident. Do you like, how do you think about that word? Some people don’t like the word accident.
 
[Sighs] Yes, it, I know what you’re saying. An accident is when somebody isn’t to blame. It’s an accident. But, yes, you’re right, this guy was responsible so this incident?

To funeral directors

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

Josefine thinks funeral directors should tell families that they can choose whatever they wish...

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Josefine thinks funeral directors should tell families that they can choose whatever they wish...

Age at interview: 57
Sex: Female
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I think funeral directors should always tell families that they have the right to do things themselves, and actually want to support them to do as much as possible for themselves. But of course funeral directors, unless they’re green funeral directors and influenced by The Natural Death Centre, will have a great interest to do as much, to earn as much money as possible, but I feel that’s grossly unfair and you know, we don’t live in Victorian times and to most people Victorian outfit, Victorian attitude, well the interpretation of it, the sombre talking and this ugly outfits and everything so, it doesn’t appeal. It shouldn’t be the rule of things and people should know what choices they have.

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.
 

Jayne explains that both the deceased and their relatives need dignity. And professionals who...

Jayne explains that both the deceased and their relatives need dignity. And professionals who...

Age at interview: 44
Sex: Female
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Have you got any message for health professionals or for any sort of professional?
 
I think my, my main message for people I suppose, any kind of professionals involved with this, is to award those people that we love, dignity. Don’t short change them even if they’re dead. You know and award them dignity in how you treat the people that they’ve left behind as well, you know, because I think a lot of the work that I’ve done, for the first part of Jon’s death was getting Jon some kind of recognition in the fact that he died needlessly, and awarding him dignity in that. Because it was such a public death, you know it was quite a unique death in that sense, in terms of how the offender, you know the history of the offender. But subsequently it’s happened to numerous other families as well, but there’s something about saying, “This is a man that I really, really loved, I want you to take care of him, and I want you to do your utmost not to let this happen to other people. And I want you to do your best for me as well.”
 
So it’s for me it’s all about awarding the person who has died dignity, and awarding me dignity in my grief. Give me information, give me support, show me compassion, don’t be afraid to be in the same room as me, and realise how vulnerable how I am throughout that process. You know and that this isn’t, this isn’t short term, this is long term. This is going to; this is life lasting for families. And it doesn’t matter what strength or courage we show, or bravery, or whatever words that people will offer up to us, either personally or professionally, that there is still an enormous of pain associated with this, and that professionals have to be experts when they deal with us. We don’t want volunteers and tea and biscuits. We want professional people to aid us through that journey.
 

Ian believes that counsellors need to listen, accept and try to understand what it might be like...

Ian believes that counsellors need to listen, accept and try to understand what it might be like...

Age at interview: 39
Sex: Male
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And have you got any message for professionals?
 
For people who are supporting families that have been through grief, and because I’ve also studied as a as a counsellor myself, it’s something that I’ve heard quite often is the sense of being able to understand, even if you haven’t experienced it, and I believe that that is impossible. I think that sometimes we go with a professional head, feeling that we can understand someone else’s circumstance, through their communicating it, and I don’t believe that that’s the case. I think that the best that we can give is an acceptance, of their experience, and I think more professionals need to go in with the sense of that, “We’re not going to bring you the answer. We’re not, we don’t want to give you the solution to the problem, but we want to be there to accept that this is your experience, and value your experience”, and I think that that would be a greater help to people than professionals who come in and feel that they can put things right. And I think that goes for, not only for counsellors but particularly for people who are supporting in that way, but also for the police service, the people who are working in hospitals and things like that, I think it’s really, really important that you don’t go in with the head that your professionalism or your skills will actually bring resolution, I think it’s about your understanding.
 
So a plea for listening?
 
The need to listen and accept, and value the experience of the person, however difficult it might be to accept, I think that it is really about that. And that’s what I do when I seek to support others even after being through this experience I think it’s important that I still try and value the experience of the person, and don’t think that because this family has lost someone through gun violence that I can understand it. I don’t, there are many people who come in through the doors that have had a very similar situations to mine and they’re going through things that are completely different to my experience, and I have to value that their experience is unique to them, and that I cannot understand it even if I’d been through it myself, you know? So it’s about valuing the experience.
 
And really listening to the person?
 
Listening and yes, and assuring them that you’re there for them, and that that you’re there to support their experience and value that. 
 

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.
 

Marcus believes that doctors prescribe antidepressants and sleeping pills too readily; they need...

Marcus believes that doctors prescribe antidepressants and sleeping pills too readily; they need...

Age at interview: 38
Sex: Male
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Have you got any message for professional such as the doctors? 
 
Yeah I think doctors in particular, with the police moving on to help victims who are left behind, I think in a lot of cases the doctors could do more. Rather than looking at you and treating you with say medication and saying that you’ve got depression because of these circumstances, I think they could do a lot more possible training in PTSD, post, post traumatic stress disorder and the effects of that. I think therein lies the future power for the doctor, rather than just giving you antidepressants and sleeping pills. And I think the way forward would be to, if it’s possible for them to do a certain training, to help with bereaved victims in, in a lot of bereavement cases.  
 
 
 

Godfrey suggests that when selecting people for medical school the selectors should consider...

Godfrey suggests that when selecting people for medical school the selectors should consider...

Age at interview: 77
Sex: Male
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Well of course as a professional myself I suppose I always have looked back on my early days as a professional and think what a unsympathetic person I was, I surrounded my daily life with people who really had awful things happening in their life. I was a young sprightly doctor who didn’t suffer ill health, didn’t suffer anything and I think looking back, I know I wouldn’t, it’s awful to say this, but I would have been a much better doctor if this had happened to me earlier in my professional life. Because I would have been, had a much better understanding of the awful things that would happen to people, I would have been a more empathic doctor, I like to think I was an empathic doctor, but I think I would’ve been much better if I’d really had, you know, that sort of life experience, and I taught medical students a lot of course in the latter part of my life, and I felt one of the problems with medical students is that many of them had led very protected lives, who really hadn’t had much in the way of adverse life experiences, and they would make much better doctors if they had gone through some of this. Indeed I would go so far as to say that perhaps in selecting people to be a medical student we should take account of their life’s experiences, and so on because it might make better doctors. 

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..

 

Ann thinks that a Victims' Commissioner should be appointed as soon as possible. She also thinks...

Ann thinks that a Victims' Commissioner should be appointed as soon as possible. She also thinks...

Age at interview: 57
Sex: Male
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What do you think the government should do now? Do you think there should be changes made?
 
I think there’s many changes that needs to be made, but number one is that for a long time now families have been promised a Victims Commissioner, most other countries have a commissioner for victims, Ireland has their commissioner, we have been promised a commissioner for a number of years, I don’t understand why one hasn’t been appointed but it’s crucial that we have a commissioner that one can go to and action certain things that are failing.
 
There’s also a need for support where there’s an acquittal, a number of families have to go through the most devastating double trauma of the perpetrator being caught, going through the trial process and they walk free. There are a number of situations, and as one example which is not really an acquittal, but if I go back to the brother that was found guilty of manslaughter of my son, now he was found guilty of manslaughter, where was the necessity to say he’s not guilty of murder, except to limit the possibility of any further action against that person? In every other circumstance a person can appeal, the victim whose been murdered cannot appeal from the grave,
 
No.
 
So there should be an appeal process for the victim’s family, where there is an acquittal or where there is a manslaughter, why not be able to challenge that verdict? The only possible reason is that it’s cost, but we need a commissioner, number one. And we need a number of areas within the existing system to give more rights to victim’s families. Particularly under the Human Rights Act. 
 
 
 

Last reviewed October 2015.

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