** Post by Sgt. Patrick Barbar
I recently came across a letter to the editor in the Winnipeg Free Press written by a Winnipeg Police officer. He wrote very honestly about a task that falls onto Police Officers that is emotionally devastating: notifying the next of kin after the death of a family member.
NOKs, as we refer to them in police jargon, are not something that is really spoken about, yet they are one of the most difficult tasks police officers are called upon to accomplish. In Saskatoon, the responsibility for NOK notifications falls upon the patrol supervisors. Four platoons patrol the city and respond to your calls for help, and each has three patrol supervisors – one for each of the geographical divisions. When a death occurs, accidental or otherwise, and families need to be notified, it is one of these 12 Sergeants who gets the call to deliver ‘the news’.
In the earlier years of my career with the SPS, I was very active with our local Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) chapter. I was privileged to meet a lot of amazing people volunteering within the organization, many of whom had lost loved ones to an impaired driver. What struck me at the time was how vividly they all remembered the day they got the news. Every one of them was able to describe, with incredible detail, their account of when the police officer came to their door. They remembered what the officer looked like and the words he or she used. I was a young Constable at the time and had yet to be called upon to do an NOK notification, but still, the stories stuck with me.
I was promoted to the rank of Sergeant nearly 5 years ago. I’ve delivered the news to many families, and have always tried to keep the lessons I learned from my friends at MADD in mind.
A few years ago, on a cold winter’s night, I was tasked by the watch commander with not one, but two NOK notifications. Two men had been returning from a remote work camp. While still hundreds of kilometres from home, an impaired driver crossed the centre line. Both men were killed.
I pulled up to a townhouse to notify the first family. It was about two weeks before Christmas. The woman inside was in her sixties, and her son was all she had. To this day, I am in awe of her strength as I broke the news to her, choking back my own tears. It is our policy to have someone the person knows come to the house before we leave – a friend, family member or member of the clergy. Her employer was the best we could do. I left about 45 minutes after I had pulled up, I was emotionally drained but had to drive to the second address.
I rang the doorbell. The couple I had to give the news to were looking forward to starting a well deserved retirement. In an instant, I shattered their whole world. I felt done for the night. Unable to think straight, I drove back to the station and sat at my desk, hoping I’d be able to file some paperwork. I lost track of the time I spent staring blankly at my computer screen. I guess I just needed to not be a police officer for a few minutes.
I never wanted to live on in people’s memory as the one who gave them ‘the news’. But I know that it is important that it be done with compassion and dignity, so I reluctantly accept the responsibility. All I ask in return is that this Holiday Season and always, you make the right decisions before driving and look out for one another.