Delivering the bad news
The job of a law enforcement officer of any kind is difficult enough with the various tasks and assignments that go with the profession. But one of the most difficult to deal with is the delivery of a death notification, and that’s something members of the North Carolina Highway Patrol have to do probably more than any other agency.
“That’s the worst part of the job,” NCHP First Sgt. G.W. McClelland said. “I’ve been in fights and dealt with situations of people pulling guns on me, but the hardest part is delivering a death notice.”
McClelland has been with the Highway Patrol for 23 years. He said the suddenness of a death notice is the difficult part of notifying next of kin about what has happened.
“It’s so unexpected,” he said. “And when it is a young person, that makes it even more difficult to handle.”
Sgt. D.D. Dawson is an 18-year veteran of the Highway Patrol. Like McClelland, he has had to make that visit to a home, knock on the door and deliver news that a family member has been killed in a crash. It’s never easy.
“You become a highway patrolman because you want to make a difference, you want to help people, to make a positive impact in their lives through a rescue or helping at a wreck scene,” Dawson said. “But when you deliver a death notice, you are taking away the one thing that keeps people going: their hope. Any hope they have of survival, you take away. They know you are not to blame, but they always remember how you deliver that message, and it’s never an easy thing to do.”
Both supervisors said they have seen people respond in different ways to the news that a son or daughter, mother or father has been killed in a crash. Some show no emotion, while others react in a hysterical manner. Some may lash out and become violent, and some even faint at the news.
“People grieve differently,” McClelland said. “There is immediate pain, and you know their heart is broken. You feel for them. You know you are going to change their life when they answer the door.”
Dawson added, “You can sympathize, but you can’t empathize with them.”
McClelland said the most difficult death notification he delivered was during his time as a trooper in Surry County more than 20 years ago. He said a crash claimed the life of a mother, father and son. A second son still in the vehicle was dying. McClelland still remembers looking into that young boy’s eyes, knowing there was little he could do to save him.
“I’ll never forget the way he looked at me,” McClelland said. “It was like he was asking me to help him with his eyes because he couldn’t talk. There was nothing I could do but hold him.”
Dawson recalled a crash in Iredell County abut eight years ago that claimed the life of a 6-year-old girl. The driver that hit the car she was in was traveling west on Interstate 40 in the eastbound lane, and troopers were not able to get the vehicle stopped before it crashed head-on with another vehicle.
“I remember thinking somebody is not going to make it and wishing that I was on Interstate 40 to intercept that vehicle,” he said. “Then I had to respond for assistance and found that one of the girls was killed. It was not easy.”
Dawson also has had to deliver death notices to the families of co-workers of his with the NCHP, another situation that is difficult.
Speed, alcohol, restraint issues – all of them have been blamed for countless highway deaths. As both troopers point out, many of the deaths that result from highway crashes are senseless and could have been avoided with voluntary compliance on the part of motorists.
Whatever the cause of a fatality, coming up with the right words is never easy when troopers do track down family members to deliver the news of a loved one’s death. At one time, there was no training for troopers in handling such situations. Now, there are classes offered in basic patrol school to help them deal with the delivery of a death notice. Supervisors often deliver notices with troopers, and in many instances, they will gave a clergy member with them, especially if they can contact a pastor affiliated with a family’s church.
“That means a lot to people when a clergy member is there for them,” Dawson said.
McClelland said troopers are instructed to remain professional when they meet with family members.
“It’s easy to get caught up in the emotion of the moment, but we have to step back and be professional about it,” he said. “We have to face it head-on and be straight with the family.”
Even when the message has been delivered, troopers may have to find ways to cope with the news they have delivered. Fatal wrecks can have an impact on them as well, and they often find themselves in need of support.
The NCHP has a Member Assistance Program to help troopers deal with traumatic experiences, and several fellow troopers from Caldwell County like M.K. Davis and B.G. Williams serve as pastors, providing another source of strength to draw from when dealing with a death notification.
“We lean on each other for support,” McClelland said. “We’re here to prevent these things from happening, and when they do, sometimes we have to have our time to reflect on what happened.”
Dawson added, “You sometimes feel like it’s a personal failure. We’re with the Highway Patrol. We’re supposed to take control of a scene. But deciding if someone lives or dies, that’s something we have no control over. It’s a feeling of helplessness.”
It’s a feeling none of the troopers like to have and one they remember the rest of their lives.
“We’ve had to deliver far more (death notices) than we’ve wanted to,” McClelland said. “I’ll tell you this, delivering one is too many. You never forget them.”