How do police break the bad news to bereaved relatives?
The 20th anniversary of Jenny’s death is fast approaching. In all those years since 15 October 1996, my opinions about what happened have changed many times: my thoughts on how the accident came about; how I should have dealt with the undertaker; what I should have asked at the inquest; and, how I miss my twin. In the early months the sadness of her not being around was over-shadowed by the way she died. That faded in time. I simply missed her, how she’d died was far less relevant. But in the last decade, as it became ‘normality’ for her not to be around, my mind-set’s reverted back to the shock of Jenny’s sudden death and sheer horror at how it happened.
The one thing that’s remained constant in 20 years is my attitude towards how the news was broken to us.
Two policemen knocked at the door at 23:40, well over three hours after the accident. It was obvious why they’d come to call – either Jenny was dead or dangerously ill. Ten minutes was all it took for them to impart the terrible news, then they left.
I don’t envy the police this horrible task. But I did feel genuinely puzzled at their timing.
What’s the point in informing the next of kin of a death between, say, 11pm and 6am? What was anyone supposed to do – go back to bed and sleep peacefully until the next morning? It flies in the face of common sense. I tend to think of police officers as inherently practical people – they have to sort out so many day-to-day dilemmas and nuisances. So how could they possibly see this as helpful? Maybe the answer’s simple, and it’s something to do with ensuring the job gets completed by the end of a shift. But surely a simple handover in the morning would be easier for all concerned, including the police officers themselves.
As it was, there was nothing we could do during that sleepless night of 15–16 October. The authorities we’d have to deal with all worked normal office hours. The first ‘official’ person I spoke with on the phone the next day was a policeman who, at about 9:30am, gave a very sketchy and, as we found out through the inquest, mainly inaccurate picture of what had happened.
Not only were we in a state of shock, but the further exhaustion from a lack of a night’s sleep did us no good when it came to making sense of what had happened and beginning to deal with the practicalities – the police, coroner’s officer, funeral director, informing family and friends etc.
I have no idea whether our experience was typical at the time, or whether it’s the same today. I certainly wouldn’t want anyone to dictate procedures to local police. But I hope some common sense guidance is the now the norm.