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Notifying the next of kin

These people's task is impersonal, yet compassionate

November 15, 2012 | 12:00 a.m. CST

Delivering the news of death has a protocol. Ask anyone who's done it.

The people in Columbia and Boone County who notify the next of kin about a loved one’s death step in and out of the lives of complete strangers and leave behind overwhelming emotions.

The task these people perform is impersonal yet compassionate. There are no scripts. Experience is their only guide. It’s more about the uniform than the people who knock on the door to intimately change a family’s world.

When Latisha Stroer of Columbia first became a police officer, the process of talking to the next of kin wasn’t really covered at the police academy. She went into her first notification with little training but soon learned why these conversations are often based more on instinct than following a specific procedure.

A man had killed himself in Maine. That’s all the information she was given. It was at his request that someone tell his ex-girlfriend in Columbia.

Stroer sat in a patrol car outside the home with a field-training officer. They discussed their plan, but it was a wasted effort. When the officers in uniform approached the house, the woman turned hysterical. She wouldn’t respond. She refused to come to the door. Stroer hadn’t even delivered the message yet.

Fearful for the woman’s well-being, the officers entered the house. They eventually calmed her enough to have the talk. But the woman already knew.

Sometime before the man decided to end his life, he told her that a visit from the police would mean only one thing — he was dead.

The officers stayed with the woman until someone came to comfort her, but their intrusion was faceless and impersonal. The woman will forever remember only the two uniforms that knocked on her door. It’s a heavy responsibility to alter someone’s life and leave just as quickly.

Stroer, now the public information officer for the Columbia Police Department, says a detective will usually make the notification, but not always. Patrol officers do it, too. However, there are times when law enforcement is not adequately staffed at a crime scene. In the interest of telling the family before they find out from anyone else, the police might send Dori Burke.

Burke is chief forensic investigator for the medical examiner’s office. She is on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week — even on Christmas and Thanksgiving. No one is supposed to touch a body at a crime scene until Burke arrives at the scene. She is responsible for documenting the scene with written notes and photos and for moving the body to the medical examiner’s office afterward. However, one part of her job wasn’t in the description.

If police are still investigating the scene and if Burke’s work is done, she will be asked to notify the family. She’s grown used to it. Sometimes she doesn’t even have to be asked. Sometimes she volunteers.

Burke has received no formal training on notifications. Experience dictates her presentation. In dark pants and a black collared shirt with a medical examiner’s crest on the left side, she gets inquisitive looks through half-cracked doors. Her uniform is less familiar, but it carries equal authority in these situations.

She explains that she is with the medical examiner’s office and she needs to speak to those in the home. She does not yet reveal why she is there. Once inside and sitting down, she continues to follow the unofficial protocol — cut right to it.

“I’ve got some bad news for you,” she might start. Shock comes first. Then the questions. “Are you sure?” ... “What happened?” ... “Where is he?” ... “What’s going to happen next?” And inevitably, “What do I do?” Call your family and friends, she says. Surround yourself with support. When you’re ready, start making plans for the funeral. She will stay as long as she’s welcome and will answer all of the questions she can.

Burke calls them her families. She gives them her cell phone number and email address and encourages them to call whenever and for whatever reason. “At that point, I can’t do anything for the deceased,” she says. “They’re gone. But if I can do anything for the family, I will. Even if that means letting them in the building at 4 a.m. and laying out the body so they can see, touch, feel. Then I’ve done my job. I’m a mother, so I understand it.”

Inside the walls of a health care facility, only a doctor can call the time of death of a patient. The doctor and nurses gather. A social worker and chaplain might join. Together they discuss what to tell the family and who will talk. The decision is based on a prior relationship with the patient’s loved ones, not rank or availability.

Gretchen Gregory has been a nurse in Columbia for 27 years, and it’s hard for her to remember a specific conversation with family members because she’s had so many. But experience has taught her how to create a compassionate atmosphere, which makes a significant difference in how the news is received.

She’ll move chairs close together so that she can look the family in the eye and speak in a somber, quiet tone. Dim lighting is preferred, and she will make sure tissue is available. “And sometimes it’s about sharing the news next to the bed where the person died,” Gregory says. “And encouraging them to touch the body before it gets cold.”

Still, Gregory says, each person reacts to death differently, and the established relationships help nurses customize the conversation. Sometimes the families aren’t looking for consolation. They just want to be left alone. “This is what I teach nursing students,” Gregory says. “Around the time of death, the best gift we can give is great care. It’s not to be sad. It’s not to be afraid. If you give great care, then you’ve given them a gift.”

Sometimes that gift of caring and understanding comes in the form of knowing someone else grieves for your loved one, too. While stationed in Iraq in 2003, Lt. Col. Rob Boone, now chair of military science and leadership at MU’s Army ROTC program, helped families cope with the loss of soldiers by writing compassionate letters. Back then, he was a company commander.

Two of his soldiers — a specialist and a private first class — died in a routine vehicle patrol. Soon, all Internet and phone lines were cut off. Communication from military personnel in Iraq to the United States shuts down when soldiers die. The protocol is out of protection and respect. “The last thing we want is for a soldier to die and the family to find out via Facebook or email or Twitter,” Boone says.

Both soldiers were pulled from the wreck. Boone zipped up the body bags and helped move them for transport back to the States. Next came the letters. As company commander, Boone wrote to each family. It’s an act of compassion and routine. The one-page documents arrive after each family is notified about the death in person, which is the first step in the military’s process.

“It was hard writing those letters,” he says. “We weren’t trained on what to say or how to say it. You try to personalize it. You have to humanize it.” He wrote what he knew about each of his soldiers.

The private first class was passionate about music. He brought drumsticks with him to Iraq. “I always knew he was on radio watch because he would be banging away,” Boone says. “So I had to learn to sleep while someone was playing the drums.” Boone takes a moment and smiles. “And I was OK with it as long as it kept him awake.” Getting used to a drumless slumber was harder than it sounds. Boone included the details about the soldier’s love for music in the letter to his mother.

The specialist was a video game whiz. He could figure out any game in about a day. Other soldiers would watch him play from start to finish. These details were included in Boone’s letter to the specialist’s wife.

Drumsticks and video games might seem insignificant on their own, but those details let families know that these soldiers were a part of another family. They were loved. They left an impression. “You let the families know that you know that kid,” Boone says. “You know what made them tick, what they were passionate about, and you respect what they were passionate about.”

Boone had dog tags made for both of these soldiers. They are now framed and hanging from a wall in his office.

With no script, little training and basic instructions, Columbians Latisha Stroer, Lt. Col. Rob Boone and former company commander Dean Darrough dealt with the process of informing and helping families cope with the death of loved ones. In brief encounters, they changed the lives of the next of kin. Photograph by Benjamin Hoste

In the early ’90s, Dean Darrough, company commander in Fort Richardson in Alaska, received notices of a different nature from the American Red Cross. Each would include two names: one of his soldiers and one of his soldiers’ family members who died. When he got each one, he felt his shoulders slump, his chin fall to his chest. Not another one, he’d think.

Darrough was responsible for the troops’ training, budget, equipment and welfare. He was also responsible for telling them that their loved ones had passed.

“The only way to do it is to just do it,” Darrough says. “You can’t prolong it. You can’t make it any softer.” Sometimes his soldiers already knew. Those talks were easiest. Other times, the death was anticipated. The death of an older or ill family member is difficult but not as hard to accept. It’s expected; they’re prepared. The hardest conversations happened when the death had no harbinger.

One notification told of the death of a soldier’s brother. Darrough told the company clerk which soldier to bring in.

The soldier didn’t know why he was called in. When he arrived in Darrough’s office, the soldier saluted and said, “Reporting as ordered, sir.” Darrough returned the salute from behind his desk. Flags stood on either side of him. He instructed the soldier to sit down on the couch opposite his desk. This was the first indicator that the conversation would be out of the ordinary. The second was when Darrough moved out from behind his desk and joined the soldier on the couch. He delivered the news quickly, directly.

The soldier rose and started to roam around the room like he didn’t know where to go, like he was trapped. Darrough did his best to soothe the young man whose health and well-being fell under his responsibilities. But military ranks deterred the soldier from confiding in his company commander. Darrough was his manager, his boss. The unit’s chaplain or fellow soldiers were better suited to offer him comfort. The soldier left the office quickly. Later, Darrough discovered the unfairness of the brother’s death — he had been murdered.

Darrough was given no training for this announcement, unlike the service men who notify families in person. The only requirements were to tell the soldier in person and with the door closed to maintain privacy in the vulnerable moment. “I could have just as easily stayed behind my desk, kept it short and sweet and performed my responsibility to the letter,” he says. “But how would you like to be told your brother was killed that way?”

Instead, those who notify next of kin must be a comfort and an authority. They are strangers who share in the most private of moments. They must balance detachment and compassion. They must know what is best to ease a family’s pain. Empathize. Reveal. Sit. Meet face to face. Listen.

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