Death of a Unit Member
When a unit members dies, it is important for the entire command and the community to work together to provide reassurance and a sense of security for those experiencing the loss. Support to help Sailors cope with feelings of loss and grief is important at this critical time. Common reactions experienced by persons following a sudden death include:
- Disbelief--"This can't be true."
- Questioning the reasons or justifications for the death
- Sleep difficulty
- Difficulty with concentration
- Numbness and detachment
In some cases, surviving members may experience distress associated with the shock and guilt and the belief that something could have been done to prevent the death. This most commonly occurs following accidental deaths and suicides.
The Casualty Assistance Call Officer (CACO), who is designated by the command to assist the surviving family, may at times encounter a range of reactions from family members who have just lost a loved one, including suicidal behaviors. The distressed family member may not be eligible for care at a local Military Treatment Facility or may be located in a remote area where emergency medical care is not readily available. Under these circumstances, the CACO should:
- Consult with the chaplain who is assigned to the family
- Enlist the assistance of a family member they trust
- Approach the family member and express concern
- Encourage the family member to seek help
- Call a local hospital or county/city community mental health clinic and inquire about local resources for urgent care
- When communicating with officials, be sure to maintain confidentiality
- Ensure the family member is accompanied to the emergency care facility
- Keep the command informed
There is no simple way to deal with the death of a unit member. Leaders should enlist help from a variety of sources such as chaplains, medical, mental health, Fleet and Family Support Center (FFSC) and others.
In the case of a suicide, the grief experienced by people close to the victim can be especially difficult and complex. The general goals of post-suicide intervention are to help friends and colleagues understand and begin the grieving process, to help maintain mission readiness, full functioning and morale; and to identify/refer individuals who are at increased risk for distress.
Commanding Officers should consider the following actions:
- Appoint a CACO to collect the personal effects and to serve as a POC for the family.
- Provide basic information to unit members surrounding the death. Include information such as time, place, method, and how the death was discovered.
- Contact appropriate unit members currently away from the unit.
- Announce the details for the memorial and funeral arrangements.
- Reach out to family members.
- Make personal contact to express condolences.
- Attend the funeral service
- Visit the bereaved family when appropriate
- Hold a memorial service for unit members who are unable to attend the funeral. Offer unit members closest to the deceased key roles in planning and carrying out the memorial service
- Check in periodically with unit members who were closest to the deceased
- Work with Public Affairs and others in the military system to best determine what to say and what not to say in public statements
Sailors often look to the Commanding Officer and Command Master Chief for answers to why the unit member died. Survivors are especially sensitive to comments or suggestions that imply responsibility. It is important for leaders to avoid passing judgment, providing simplistic explanations of the death or suicide, or publicly placing blame. With this in mind, it is important to keep rumors from spreading by keeping people informed while protecting privacy.
Contact the Fleet and Family Support Center, chaplain, or mental health for assistance with locating survivor support groups in the community.
TAPS is a national network of peer support for military survivors. They provide referrals to grief counseling options. More information is available at www.taps.org. Referral options include:
- Crisis intervention teams whose members have psychological first aid experience
- Case worker assistance to help families find answers to their questions
- Handling Traumatic Events, A Manager's Handbook United States Office of Personnel Management www.opm.gov/Employment_and_Benefits/WorkLife/OfficialDocuments/handbooksguides/Trauma/index.asp
- Disaster Mental Health Institute: www.usd.edu/dmhi/
- US Dept of Health and Human Services Disaster Mental Health: www.mentalhealth.org/cmhs/EmergencyServices/
- TAPS www.taps.org
- Joyce, J. (2002). Leadership in a time of disaster: Being prepared for new age threats. Journal of Nursing Administration, 32, 455-460.
- Mental Health and Mass Violence, Evidence-Based Early Psychological Intervention for Victims/Survivors of Mass Violence. (2001). Bethesda, MD: National Institute of Mental Health.