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
- Conduct the notification in a private place after you and the survivors
- 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
- Have one person take the lead in conducting the notification. The other
person should monitor survivors for reactions dangerous to themselves or
- 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
- 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
- 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.