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VI. Survivors of Homicide Victims


     Homicide is a crime with more than one victim. Nothing can ever prepare survivors for the day they are suddenly told their loved one has been murdered. Survivors suffer the shock of the sudden loss of their loved one and anger that the loved one did not have to die. Murder crushes survivors' trust in the world and their belief in social order and justice.

    Many survivors of homicide victims say that the most traumatic event of their lives was when they were notified of the death. One of the most difficult duties a law enforcement officer must perform is providing notification to the family of murdered victims. An inappropriate notification can prolong survivors' grieving process and delay their recovery from the crime for years. Proper notification by you can restore some of the survivors' trust and beliefs and help them to begin a new life.

Tips for Responding to Survivors of Homicide Victims

  • Know the details surrounding the homicide victim's death before notification. Survivors often want to know the exact circumstances of their loved one's death.

  • Have confirming evidence of the homicide victim's identity in the event of denial by the survivors. Be sensitive to the possibility that the victim may have been leading a life unknown to the survivors, such as involvement in drugs, extramarital affairs, or homosexuality.

  • Know as much as possible about the homicide victim's survivors before notification. Notify the appropriate closest survivor first.

  • Make notifications in person.

  • Conduct notifications in pairs. You can contact local volunteers who are specially trained in death notification through your local clergy or crisis intervention agency. Also, the National Organization for Victim Assistance (800-879-6682) may be able to refer you to volunteers in your area.

  • Do not bring personal articles of the homicide victim with you to the notification.

  • Conduct the notification in a private place after you and the survivors are seated.

  • Avoid engaging in small talk upon your arrival. Do not build up slowly to the reason for your visit or to the actual announcement of the death of the survivor's loved one. Finally, do not use any euphemisms for the death of the loved one, such as “She passed away,” “We lost her,” “She expired,” or “She left us.” Be compassionately direct and unambiguous in giving notification to survivors. For example: “We've come to tell you something very terrible. Your daughter has been killed in a carjacking. I'm so sorry.”

  • Ask survivors whether they would like you to contact a family member or friend.

  • Have one person take the lead in conducting the notification. The other person should monitor survivors for reactions dangerous to themselves or others.

  • Accept survivors' reactions—no matter how intense or stoic—in a nonjudgmental, empathetic manner. Survivors may cry hysterically, scream, collapse, sit quietly, or go into shock.

  • Be prepared for survivors' possible hostility toward you as a representative of law enforcement and avoid responding impolitely or defensively.

  • Show empathy for survivors' pain and suffering, but do not say “I understand” when clearly no one can.

  • Refer to the homicide victim by name out of respect to the victim and survivors. Do not use terms like “the deceased” or “the victim.”

  • Listen to survivors and answer all of their questions.

  • Make telephone calls to other survivors of the homicide victim at the request of the immediate survivors. If possible, make arrangements for someone to be with these survivors before they receive your telephone notification. If this is not possible, ask the survivors to sit down once you've contacted them before you make the notification. Ask for permission to call a neighbor, a friend, or a crisis intervention counselor to be with the survivors after the notification. Tell each person you contacted the names of others who have been notified.

  • Show respect for survivors' personal and religious or nonreligious understandings of death. Do not impose your personal beliefs about death on survivors by saying of the victim, for example, “She's in a better place now.”

  • Explain to survivors that everyone grieves differently. Encourage them to be understanding and supportive of one another.

  • Before leaving survivors, make sure that someone can stay with them and that they have contacts for support services.
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