Certified thanatologist Lisa Dinhofer talks about the best way to deliver a death notification during an Association for Death Education and Counseling (ADEC) conference. As a death educator, she specializes in very traumatic loss. After years of training, she’s learned a lot about the impact of death notifications. Do it in person whenever possible. Avoid the phone, and always have a partner with you if you can. Look the person in the eye—you’re telling them very important information. If you can’t look them in the eye, they can’t trust you. They’ll want to know the details leading up to the death. Don’t be afraid to use the words death, dead, or died.

However, avoid details about the body. Be kind, be gentle, and answer their questions. It’s your role to accompany them through this very difficult time. Delivering a death notification holds immense power. You can make the process a little easier or much tougher. Nobody wants to be the person to deliver these notifications, and sometimes a professional isn’t available for the task. Sometimes, it’s a family member who’s also grieving who must deliver the news.

Defining a Death Notification

It’s easy to spot an official death notification, such as when a police officer arrives at the door. Unfortunately, few people—including professionals like police officers—have been well trained in how to deliver these notifications. It’s an awkward experience for many, especially when the griever is very emotional. Empathy is critical, and should be an integral part of training for any profession where a death notification may occur. However, each person delivering the notification has a unique background and skills.

If you must deliver a death notification, follow the golden rule. How would you like to be approached? Don’t forget that you’ve been given a precious task.

 

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Heidi Horsley

Dr. Heidi Horsley is an international grief expert, licensed psychologist, and social worker. She is the Executive Director and Co-Founder of the Open to Hope Foundation, one of the largest internet grief resources, with over 2 million yearly visitors. She hosts the award-winning Open to Hope cable television show and podcast. Dr. Heidi is an adjunct professor at Columbia University. She serves on the ​National Board of Directors for The Compassionate Friends, the largest peer to peer support organization in the world. She also serves on the National Advisory Board for the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS). TAPS has served over 50,000 military families who have suffered a loss. In addition, she serves on the National Advisory Board for the Elisabeth Kubler-Ross Foundation, and the Children's Brain Tumor Foundation. Dr. Heidi is on the VIP section of Marquis Who's Who in America, Madison Who's Who, and Who's Who of American Women. Dr. Heidi has co-authored eight books, including; Spouse Loss; Fresh Grief; Inspirational Stories for Handling the Holidays After Loss; Inspirational Stories of Healing After Loss; Real Men Do Cry; A Quarterbacks Inspiring Story of Tackling Depression & Surviving Suicide; Teen Grief Relief: Parenting with Understanding Support and Guidance; and Signs and Hope From Heaven. She has appeared on the ABC television show 20/20, has been interviewed by numerous media outlets, and has been a guest on hundreds of radio shows as well as quoted in dozens of media publications, including the Metro World News, Washington Post, Time Magazine, Newsday, Money Magazine, and New York Daily News. Dr. Heidi is also the author of numerous articles and academic book chapters. Dr. Heidi gives keynotes, presentations, and workshops throughout the country, and teaches continuing education workshops for health care professionals on support following trauma and tragedy. For 10 yrs., Dr. Heidi worked as a co-investigator for the FDNY-Columbia University Family Guidance Program; a study which looked at traumatic loss in families of firefighters killed in the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks. Through this 9/11 study, Dr. Heidi provided ongoing intervention and follow-up to firefighter widows and their children, and facilitated groups for bereaved siblings. In addition, Dr. Heidi supervised the school social work staff at Harlem Democracy Charter Schools in NYC for four years. Dr. Heidi's early career included work in a variety of clinical settings, including; Manhattan Psychiatric Center, California Pacific Medical Center Psychiatry Dept., University of San Francisco Mental Health Clinic, St. Lukes-Roosevelt Hospital Psychiatry Dept., and Hope Haven Residential Treatment Center in New Orleans. Her doctoral dissertation was on the sudden death of a sibling. Her academic credentials include a doctorate in Psychology (PsyD) from the University of San Francisco; a Masters degree in social work (LMSW) from Columbia University, and a Masters degree in mental health counseling (MS) from Loyola University, in New Orleans. Dr. Heidi splits her time between NYC and Tucson AZ.

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