Death Notification: Where Families Gather Following a Mass Casualty Event
Written by: Carolyn V. Coarsey, Ph.D.
June 15, 2022
On June 29, the Foundation will offer the first Virtual Webinar of our 2022 Summer Series. Foundation leader, Jeff Morgan will host an interactive discussion about Friends & Relatives Reception Centers, and Family Assistance Centers, focusing on vital lessons learned on this topic in recent responses. The next two articles in this series will address information on the topic and hopefully encourage the reader to participate in the webinar to learn more about the centers, their purposes, and their differences.
"You can’t make it (death notification) better, but you can definitely make it worse.”
-Dr. Nancy Davis, former chief of counseling services for the FBI
The purpose of this article is to provide clarification on the difference in the purpose of the centers and to provide examples where notification of death was carelessly given in the Centers. Secondly, the article will suggest ways these second assaults might be avoided. Consciousness surrounding the way in which someone is informed of the death of a loved one has been raised in many circles over the last several years. However, the Foundation’s case study research and recent examples in the media point toward the need for continuing to increase sensitivity toward the subject of how families are notified of the death of a loved one.
Friends & Relative Reception Center (FRRC)
When we hear of a crisis involving our own family members, the number one priority is information—to learn specifics about their condition. Questions about their fate and how we can be re-united dominate the survivor’s mind until we have this vital information. Where possible, family members will rush to the scene of the crisis only to be met by uniformed personnel who must turn them away from the scene. Thus, the need for a short-term place for families to gather and receive what information is available in the immediate aftermath.
The FRRC is usually established quickly by local authorities near the scene of the tragedy. In cases where the crisis is not geographically near where family members are located, agencies will often choose a location where families can gather to await further news about the status of the individuals involved.
Reuniting Survivors with Family Members
There have been many times over the years when persons who survived have been reunited with their families in the presence of family members whose loved ones did not live through the trauma. Two examples are used here to emphasize the need to take measures to prevent this from happening.
In one of our case studies, a tour group was visiting a museum when terrorists fired shots killing a large number of tourists. An FFRC was set up in the airport terminal building where families could be reunited with those who survived the shooting. After the aircraft carrying the tourists arrived, the survivors deplaned and rushed into the room tearfully embracing their awaiting family members. When no other survivors entered the room, the awaiting family members were left to deduce that their loved one(s) were dead.
While it was several days before the remains of the deceased tourists were transported home, the way their family members learned of the deaths, in such a publicly humiliating way, exacerbated their grief experience. While the deaths were not associated with local officials, the manner in which the families learned of the deaths was a source of anger and resentment toward the local authorities.
A similar example occurred following the explosion of the BP drilling site off the coast of New Orleans, LA in 2010. A reception center was set up near the site where the surviving men were brought to shore. Many family members rushed to the site to be reunited with their loved ones. Eleven men were never recovered. Verification that their sons, fathers, and husbands were never coming home was realized by their absence in the reception center. The agony of watching the entry door and praying their loved one’s face would suddenly appear was re-lived repeatedly, by many who had to endure this mishandled process.
In both of these cases, I recognize that local authorities were not able to follow their normal death notification procedures this early in the process, as forensic identification had not yet taken place. And in the case of the missing men from the rig—they were never found, making positive identification impossible. However, forethought and planning would have prevented at least some of the suffering on the part of the family members who had to figure out on their own that their loved one was not coming home. This suffering was compounded by the fact that they had to witness the joy and exhilaration of the families who were reunited with their loved ones.
Registering the names of arriving family members and recording whom they came to find has proven to be a much better way to handle a highly-charged emotional situation, such as this. Then, privately coordinating with the ones in charge of transporting the survivors in advance, so that the family of an arriving survivor is reunited with their family in a private area, has proven to be preferable. This prevents the survivors who are still waiting for their loved ones, having to witness the public displays of affection, relief, and joy while they are still praying for their loved ones' return.
Family Assistance Center (FAC)
Following a mass casualty event, as soon as possible, authorities will establish a Family Assistance Center. This Center is usually located in a nearby hotel, church, or facility that is suitable for longer-term interaction between the families and officials who have information that continues to come in as the crisis continues to unfold. This is also the Center where families can receive assistance from the company Care or Special Assistance Team members and the helping agencies including spiritual care, counseling support, and special needs arising from their specific situation.
Learning of a Loved One(s) Fate
In mass casualty events, we continue to hear family members tell of how they learned of their family member’s death by deduction. Similar to the stories where mistakes were made in the FFRC, forethought, and planning cannot help with the grief of the family members, but it can prevent learning of death in a public, humiliating way. Two examples in our case study research from the Pulse Nightclub shooting (Orlando, FL) in 2016 and the Route 91 Music Festival, (Las Vegas, NV) shooting in 2017 illustrate the point.
A Pulse Nightclub Survivor Story
Jeff, who spoke at our 2019 Member-Partner Meeting shared similar stories about how families learned of their loved one(s) deaths. Local authorities were working as hard as they could to determine who the deceased victims were, while the medical teams worked to save the lives of as many as they could in the local trauma hospital. Jeff sustained many gunshots and at one point his parents were told he would not make it. They then learned that he had indeed survived. However, their joy was tainted by the way others were left to figure out on their own that their son, daughter, wife, husband, and other relations had not survived.
Jeff’s parents along with his entire family waited somewhere between 15-16 hours to learn of his fate. They described the large room that was set up as a makeshift FAC where they and all of the families waited. Jeff was appalled to learn that every time new people were identified in the hospital rooms, a medical person would come into the room, stand on a large table and call out their names. Finally, Jeff’s family was called to the front and told that Jeff was in a room and they could go see him, however, they were told that he likely would not survive.
At that point, the person who stood atop the table announced that there were no other survivors. People wailed, shouted, and cried. Many fell to the floor in shock and disbelief. And with that, they were left on their own to go home and wait for the formal death notification when the police identified them.
Route 91 Shooting
Colin learned that his son and daughter were attending the concert when they received a call that his son had been shot. When he and his wife arrived at the hospital, they were reunited with his daughter but had to wait to learn about their son, who ultimately survived. Like Jeff’s story, the trauma hospital functioned as a makeshift FAC where families waited to learn about their loved one’s condition.
Finally, on the second day, all of the survivors had been identified, and a member of the medical team came in and announced that if a name had not been called, it meant that person had not survived. As in the other story, people reacted with great emotion, responding publicly in their shock and despair. And like the families mentioned above, they were sent home to await the formal notification from the police.
In his interview, Colin expressed his disappointment at how the families of the deceased victims were treated. As a retired police officer, he was familiar with the need to provide information privately and with as much sensitivity as possible under the circumstances. Everyone could understand that the police were working as fast as they could to provide positive identification, but due to the number of victims, the process was greatly slowed. Many people like Colin, felt that the families should not have learned of the death in such a careless way, much less left on their own to figure out what to do next.
At the Foundation, we would use the same method of registering families as described in the FRRC in order to ensure that death notification is delivered privately and with great empathy within the FAC environment. When the police or medical examiner or whomever the official notifier is in that jurisdiction comes forward to speak with a family, arranging for a private space to talk prevents the humiliation that happened in both the FAC’s for the shootings. Their grief is hard enough, but adding humiliation and shame to their memory of how they learned about the death for many is unforgivable.
We know that no one intended to hurt the families more than they were already hurting, and we are the first to support those who did their best under the worst of circumstances. Our observations as seen through the eyes of survivors are intended to help others who find themselves working in similar crises, and consider other ways to improve responses in the future. As always, we are grateful to survivors who give us the benefit of their experiences and share wisdom gained during their painful life experiences.
Members should join Jeff Morgan on June 29, to learn more about these centers, their function and other valuable lessons learned from past responses in order to increase the effectiveness of the centers. Additional Summer webinar dates and registration information can be found on our website.
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