Bearing News of Death Is the Hardest Job


Although it involves words and not bullets, most officers of the law will tell you it is their most emotionally trying task.

Worse than a gun-to-gun standoff with a violent suspect. Worse than talking down a suicide jumper.

It is delivering the simple euphemistic phrase: “I am here to tell you that your loved one is not coming home.”


Officers charged with notifying a dead victim’s next of kin say the expressions of unmitigated shock and sorrow that greet their words never leave them. Years of training and field work do nothing to prepare them for the sense of utter helplessness, the feeling of being the messenger of death.

“We deal with death on a day-to-day basis, but each one is a new part of someone’s life,” said Lt. Fred Corral of the investigative division of the Los Angeles County coroner’s office. “You don’t get used to it. You just try to deal with it in a sensitive way.”

Law enforcement protocol entrusts the coroner’s office with notifying survivors, but local police officers or sheriff’s deputies often get there first. As the agency most focused on death, the coroner has some basic regulations covering notifications, but neither the Los Angeles Police Department nor the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department formally teach officers how to handle it.

For Corral, who also has worked as a police officer and sheriff’s deputy, no written guidelines could ever make the job routine.

“I still feel just as I did on my first fatal” notification, he said--following the death in 1984 of a 15-year-old boy who rode his bicycle into traffic near the intersection of Mulholland Drive and the San Diego Freeway.

“Right after I started talking to the kid’s mother, her husband walked up. As soon as she saw him, she knew I had to be there for someone else. She started screaming, ‘Where’s Michael? Where’s Michael? Oh my God!’ ” Corral recalled. “She got hysterical. I just sat there and held her hand and tried to explain what happened. I gave it to her straight. One thing I’ve learned is that you don’t lie to the families.”


Telling someone the facts while supporting them emotionally is especially crucial in homicide cases, veterans say.

Det. Marshall White, who supervises the homicide unit of the LAPD’s Devonshire Division, said his 28 years in police work have taught him that seeking survivors’ input in helping solve a murder case often proves therapeutic for both parties.

“You have to show compassion,” White said. “But I also let them know in no uncertain terms that this is a homicide investigation and we want to find the person involved in taking your loved one’s life and so we’re going to have to ask some direct questions.”

Authorities with experience say the basic method requires delivering the news in person, making sure other relatives or friends are around to comfort the people most affected and, above all else, acting swiftly.

Sheriff’s Homicide Det. Cheryl Comstock, a 20-year department veteran, said rarely does word leak out before an official notification. But when it mistakenly does, through the media or the neighborhood grapevine, the damage is irreparable.

Perhaps most unsettling, Comstock added, are the notifications that result in no drama--and therefore no clue as to the meaning of the victim’s life.


“We’ve had plenty of times when we’ve told someone that their family member was killed and there is absolutely no emotion,” she said. “At that point, you have to think, ‘Man, are we the only ones who care?’ ”