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Death Notifications and Social Media

Elizabeth Ortiz, MS, F-ABMDI

Being a part of the 21st century has been one amazing leap into new discoveries for the technological world. We are now able to communicate with each other instantly via various social outlets and through the many electronic devices available to each and every one of us. The devices can be cell phones, laptops, tablets, and watches with each one having a different capability. Overall, everyone is just a click away from informing family and friends of events in their life but, unfortunately, this is also how family and friends are discovering the death of a loved one.

We are currently in a society which enjoys sharing every movement, thought, expression and so on to anyone willing to listen or read. People do not think twice of “posting” their ideas or emotions to social media without thinking twice of the repercussions it might have, particularly to those who work at the coroner’s office. Our policy is to make the death notification in person to the legal next of kin and to ensure that family member has the appropriate support once notified. Normally a police officer accompanies the Medicolegal Death Investigator to the residence. This is done as a precautionary measure in the event of a medical emergency, the officer can request for medical assistance immediately. A victim advocate will sometimes also assist with the death notification and they provide further assistance to the family.

Death notifications are rather tricky in the sense that I do not know the family dynamics or the health of the person I will be talking to. Some have been estranged from the decedent or some have had encounters with law enforcement that might have resulted in unfavorable outcomes thus they do not wish to open the door to talk to me. Other circumstances could be the family has already experienced a lost in their family an additional loss could be too much. There are so many possible prior events and situations that could make the death notification somewhat tricky. Ultimately, I want to inform the legal next of kin of the death prior to them reading it on social media.

I have had the unfortunate task of clarifying what a family has read on social media when I attempted to make the death notification. The family was already in a state of disbelief, confusion, which sometimes leads to anger, and I now have to try to provide them answers to questions they have already formulated in their head. I find it unbelievable how so many of our youth think it is okay to share someone’s tragedy on social media and immediately post their condolences, yet unaware if the rest of the family has been notified of the death. I had a case in which parents had found their child dead. The death had taken place at a late hour of the night and upon my return to the office I noticed many of her friends had posted their condolences on social media. I had only left their house thirty minutes earlier and yet it appeared her entire school was already aware of the death. I could only think of her extended family who might not have been aware of the death. It is not an easy task but it is an inherent aspect of the career I chose.

The advances in technology are always welcomed. They provide us with the ability to speak to families and friends in other states and countries. These advances provide us career opportunities we once thought unfeasible and the ability to continue in our educational goals, such as I did, but at the same time they are detrimental to what an agency is trying to accomplish, particularly when it comes to notifying a family member of the death of a loved one.

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