What It’s Like to
Give A Death Notification

in ,

In Short: Humbling.

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Read Time: 3 minutes

For four years I was a Deputy Coroner in my county. I enjoyed the work tremendously. How? you might ask. It brought two of my interests together into one job: science, with the death scene investigation and autopsy (yes, I found that fascinating), and the “hospitality” of doing a death notification.

In Colorado, the coroner takes charge of the deceased’s possessions, arranges for autopsy, handles paperwork, and notifies the next of kin. We do not conduct the autopsy, that’s the job for the pathologist or Medical Examiner. In my county it was policy to attend autopsies so we could share as much with the family as they wanted to know from our personal observations.

Yes, It’s Difficult

Illustration by Randy Cassingham.

All death notifications are hard to do — to watch someone’s life break before your eyes. I was good at this, though, because of the tenderness and compassion I have for both the deceased and the survivors. There was one notification, though, that sticks in my mind as the hardest I ever did.

One New Year’s Eve my husband and I went into town for dinner, planning to get home before the partiers hit the road. As we were leaving we bumped into a friend and her date who were headed into a bar for a drink. We joined them to chat. Good thing we only really wanted conversation because the bartender was so busy he hardly acknowledged us, and definitely didn’t offer us a drink! Once it was getting close to Crazies Time, we headed home.

We are both volunteer medics in our county, so we can expect to be called out anytime. We wanted to be fully sober so we could respond if needed.

Radio chatter woke us up at 1:00 a.m. The ambulance crew had come across a fresh accident as they were coming back from another call, and stopped to help. As we listened we realized there was a death involved, so I got up and headed to the scene to start the death investigation.

The ambulance crew didn’t recognize the driver, but when they heard the sheriff deputy say his name they realized they knew him. I did too: it was the same young man who had been our bartender just a few hours earlier. Having just been interacting with the deceased made the case more emotional for me than any case I’d had to that point.

Identifying next of kin got tricky because while we knew who his parents were, we also knew they didn’t live in town anymore. With all of the responders putting our heads together, we tracked them down and learned that they were staying in town for the holidays. When we arrived they came out to greet us. They were suspicious when we asked if we could go inside. Once we introduced ourselves, their faces went from suspicious to stricken.

He’d joined them for the city’s midnight fireworks display, and “had to” go home to let his dog out. Listening to them talk in circles from blaming themselves to reminiscing to blaming themselves was gut wrenching. But I sat there with them for over an hour, listening, answering questions, and listening some more.

Notifications were never easy, but this one was more personal than the others. It helped me be stronger for the notifications to come.

Kit Cassingham is a transformation coach. Her background is eclectic, as you’ll see from her diverse story contributions, which makes her a better coach. She’s a Colorado native and lives in the state’s rural southwest with her husband and three cats, surrounded by mountains.

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6 thoughts on “Give A Death Notification”

    • Thanks, bandit. I understand why people think it’s so difficult. I see it as a gift, and one I’m glad to share.

      I’ve done it, but I’m glad that I don’t have to very often! -rc

  1. I have mostly dealt with the on-scene notifications, after a failed resuscitation or an obvious DOA. I like to think I have a gift for it too, however, as an empath it takes me a while to recuperate. It is so much worse notifying your own family of a death.

  2. Many years ago, I had to tell my housemate that her father had died. We both worked at the same place, but she had gone home early that day. The switchboard routed the call through to me [it was a small place and we all knew each other] and the caller, a friend of her father, told me the circumstances. He offered to make the call, but I knew she didn’t like him, so I asked him to give me time to get home and tell her myself.

    By the time I’d gotten partway into telling her about her father’s heart attack, I was so upset that she started comforting me, telling me that he’d had a long life, all the usual things. We ended up laughing through our tears.

    All in all, the anticipation was harder than the act. It would have been a lot harder if they’d been close, but her parents divorced when she was little, and she knew him pretty much only as an adult.


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