Morbid question about notification of severe injuries or casualties (WARNING: Possibly triggering material)

NOTE: This topic may be triggering for some, and I am trying to be sensitive about this topic that I am curious about. Mods, please advise if this subject is appropriate. I am asking a factual question, trying to be as polite as possible. IT IS NOT MY INTENT TO MAKE PEOPLE UNCOMFORTABLE OR BRING UP PAINFUL MEMORIES.

Hi SD,

How do police/EMS or hospitals notify people about family members who have passed?

  1. What is the protocol of a phone call? Do they tell the awful news within the first minutes of the conversation? Or do they say “something serious has happened…we need you to come down to your local police station?”

  2. What happens if the person is in the middle of something important and, not knowing, asks the police officer to call back later? Will the police officer comply?

  3. Do they even do phone calls, now that I think about it? Or do they ask the local police station to send police officers and a chaplain to the house? What if the person isn’t home? How far will the police go to locate the person?

  4. Would a police officer calling about such awful news leave a message to call them back, if no one picked up? What details would or wouldn’t the message contain?

  5. How much information is an officer or hospital permitted to give?

  6. What if the person receiving the call goes into shock or thinks the call is a prank?

  7. Is notification of a deceased’s loved ones legally required within a certain time period of the death?

  8. When would a police officer call the ICE (In Case of Emergency) number on a person’s cell phone?

  9. If there were no ICE number on the phone, would a police officer look for words like “Mom” or “Dad” or “Grandma”, etc.?

I am curious about this topic because of the fact that it’s going to happen to all of us likely at some point, receiving a call about something awful. My parents received the phone call about my car accident late at night that I was in critical condition in a hospital. I never asked what the content of that phone call was, and now I’m morbidly curious about protocol and etiquette regarding the transmission of news of this nature.

Thanks for fighting my ignorance.


First step is determining who has answered the call. If it’s not clear if they are someone to provide any detailed information they’ll request a call back. It’s easier for someone who’s been seriously ill because the possibility of death is already known. If there’s been an accident they’ll lead with something like “I have some bad news for you” and then getting to the point mediately. If the patient is not dead, but may be soon they’ll first request a visit to the facility to provide more info. Otherwise they’ll have to spell it out quickly on the phone.

Nobody likes doing this, but some people are better at it than others.

small town western NY 1994 my dad got into a pretty serious accident [someone who had been drinking t-boned the car on the passenger side, stove a 1988 lincoln town car in halfway to the drivers seat, Dad had 2 broken ribs, black eyes and broken nose, dislocated jaw from the airbag, dislocated shoulder, and something to one of his hips. Police showed up at the house, but mom and dad were very well known in town.

When mrAru rolled my car, he found his cell in the detritus lining the ceiling of the car [funny how everything that hid under the seats comes out when you shake a car =)] and called me while hanging upside down in the seatbelt while waiting for local EMS to show up [town has all volunteer EMS, so there can be like an hour wait until someone shows up. Small town Connecticut can be a pain in the ass. We have a 45 minute call out time for the state police to show up as the local cop shop is in Willimantic and they have a sizable zone to police] I am assuming that if he were not bored waiting for them, and unconscious someone would have either called or shown up at my door. I actually got there and was sitting on the ground chatting with him as we sorted the crap that shook loose and I bagged it up and tossed it into my car, Then I followed EMS to Backus Hospital and the car went to the local garage.

My aged MIL lived in an independent living facility. I was her primary emergency contact, my wife / her daughter the second contact.

MIL was found dead in bed one day. She had not been ill in any way, just real old. Finding her dead was an unexpected surprise to them.

The facility director called my mobile which was off because I was on jury duty. She left a voicemail message asking me to call her promptly and that it was important. We both know each other well from many conversations at the facility. After failing to get through to me she called my wife who answered her mobile. And the director delivered the news in the first sentence or two after the usual telephone pleasantries. “We found her unresponsive in bed, the paramedics have come, and she is definitely dead.”

I was having a dim sum lunch with friends when I got a call from a hospital in Iowa, telling me to call a particular doctor immediately. I did, and he had to tell me that my mother had had a brain stem hemorrhage and was for all intents and purposes dead, but they were keeping her on life support so I could come “say goodbye.”

It was a very matter-of-fact conversation - gentle but firm. The doctor got straight to the point - he basically said, “your mother [medical jargon here] and this means she is brain dead with no hope of recovery.”

I recall him being very alert to the possibility that I would have false hope - at one point he misunderstood something I said as meaning I might be thinking there was some chance of recovery, and he very clearly repeated that there was no chance of that happening.

He also was careful to ask me if I had any questions.

It must be a terribly difficult part of the job for health care professionals, but I have no complaints about the way it was handled in my case.

When my grandmother died in 1983, absolutely none of that happened. We later found out she had been hit by car while crossing a street near our house, where she lived. Nobody came to tell us.

When my mother came home from work, and my grandmother was unexpectedly not at home, she got worried. Eventually she started calling hospitals in the area. One of them answered, “Elizabeth Stern? Yes, she was here, but she passed away.”

That’s how we found out.

When my daughter was dying from an accident, I got called out of my classroom and the cop on the phone said I’m Blah Blah from Blah PD. I’m at your house and I’ll let your wife explain. Then she handed the phone to Mrs. Cad and had her about to break down into complete incoherence explain what happened. The fact that your brain cannot process that news when you hear it made it even more unintelligible and I honestly did not understand what was going on for a few minutes which made it worse…

We will never forgive that cop for that.

When my mother died in the hospital after a long illness - her death was not unexpected - her doctor called me at work. Dad was there; he’d been there when she died. I presume the doctor called my sister because,she showed up as well.

In the UK, it’s almost always a personal visit from a uniformed policeman - no clergy. The first thing they need to establish, especially if it’s after an accidental death, is that they are talking to the right people. Mistakes happen and they don’t want to be telling a parent that their son died when he had not.

I know this is a little different, but I worked at an in-patient hospice several years ago and it was the nurses’ responsibility to notify the family by phone if nobody was at the bedside at the moment of death.

We would be upfront and say that the family member had passed away (vs. just saying come on down here and then telling them in person) to prevent the possibility of them driving recklessly in order to make it in time.

Even though their loved one was in hospice, some folks had a very difficult time hearing this news.


When my father-in-law in Ireland passed, we couldn’t reach his son (who lived in London) on the phone, as it happened on a Saturday, the Sabbath, and his son was an observant Jew who couldn’t answer the phone. Someone suggested calling the local police station, who sent a uniformed Bobby over to knock on the door. My brother in law didn’t respond to the knock, either, but he must have called out to the policeman because the Bobby then had to break the news of his father’s death by shouting it through the mail flap, to make sure he was heard.

Eventually the police station called back to the family in Ireland: “Your son says he’ll give you a call tomorrow.”

The hospital called me and said my mother had “taken a turn for the worse.”
She had colitis and was fully expected to recover. When I got there, the chaplain met me. Only then did I realize my mom had passed away.

Never a phone call. Always in person. We would often have to call other jurisdictions to make notifications and often had to do the same for deaths that happened elsewhere.

I’ve read and watched a lot of detective fiction, and there’s often a scene where Officer Toughguy says “Well, suppose someone should tell the family”
And Officer Sidekick jumps in with “Yeah, someone ELSE, someone with a better bedside manner! I’ll do it…”
“Oh, good, I hate it when they cry.”

I have never been in the position of having to inform somebody of a death, but I seem to recall something about doctors being taught to use the words “[name] has died”, rather than some softer euphemism, like “passed on” or “gone to a better place”. You don’t want the person to have some sort of confusion about what’s happened.

I’m wondering if law enforcement gets similar training.

If there is any kind of training for it I don’t know about it.

“He got away from us.”

The Marine Corps does. See page 88 of this PDF.

“The Commandant of the Marine Corps has entrusted me to express his deep regret that your (relationship), John (died/was killed in action) in (place of incident (city/state or country) on (date). (State the circumstances) The Commandant extends his deepest sympathy to you and your family in your loss.”

Only the Marines could write something like that where the very words are standing ramrod-straight at attention while being said.

I don’t run with my phone. I have seen others running with a phone but no headphones just using the phone’s speaker to play music; that phone would go flying if someone was hit by a car & might land in a bush or in a sewer & possibly not get found. Even if it lands in plain sight the screen may be cracked beyond use. Even if phone is not damaged, PD won’t be able to get into the phone of anyone who uses a passcode or pattern as opposed to facial or fingerprint recognition so there are a myriad of failure points making them unable to get to your contact list.

My guess is there was no answer you’d leave a card in the door with a note to ‘call you ASAP’, That note won’t be found right away by:

  • People living alone
  • Those with a roommate who is away/traveling
  • Households that use the side door or garage & rarely open their front door.

For the above reasons I wear an ID - Road ID sells them; mine is more like this style; bright band & very clear what it is. If you get a shoe tag & you’re not in your shoes anymore or a watch band one in the same color as your watch band (ie. black on black) it might not get noticed until it’s too late for your family to make it to the hospital to say goodbye.