Credit: Photo by Kristina Tripkovic on Unsplash

A sudden, brutal or unexpected death can be devastating for families to deal with. Some choose to share their experience with journalists.

How should reporters work sensitively with people who are grieving? I teamed up with the charity Child Bereavement UK and trauma expert and clinician professor Stephen Regel to produce these media tips.

A sudden, violent or unexpected death has the potential to cause long-term mental health problems for family members and others involved. Interviews need to be done with care, but remember that each person’s response to grief is unique.

They may feel...

Disbelief lasting some time. They may feel shocked, numb and stunned.

Guilt or shame that they survived, they could not protect or save the person or prevent what happened.

Anger and feeling it should not have happened. Rage and retribution if someone was responsible.

Emptiness, profound sadness, longing for the person, missing them, possible suicidal thoughts, hopelessness, and helplessness.

Isolation that no one really understands. A sense of loneliness or unreality.

Memories about the extremely distressing things they may have seen or heard. They may experience intrusive images, flashbacks and a sense of 'reliving' the experience. Even trying to recall and talk about positive things about the person who died may inadvertently cause this.

Before the interview

Research the facts: Double-check them with the family. Any inaccuracy will distress.

Acknowledge the death with sincerity: Tell them you are sorry to hear what has happened. Thank them for talking to you.

Offer choice and control: Their world has been upended and the sense of helplessness can feel frightening and overwhelming. Let them choose, for example, to have someone with them, choose their favourite pictures of the person who has died, choose where to talk to you and what to share with you.

Preparation is key: Listen to and respect their wishes. Be clear that they can choose whether or not to answer a question and that they can stop the interview if they feel too distressed or overwhelmed. Brief them about any difficult questions in advance and phrase them sensitively.

Avoid trying to relate: It can be appropriate to say you cannot even begin to imagine what they are going through. But avoid sharing your own experience of grief: it does not equate with their bereavement.

Phones away and on silent: Speak gently, sit quietly and listen attentively, with empathy and without distraction.

Manage expectations carefully: Be clear about the process of your work. Be honest. Involve them.

Be human: Try not to fret too much about saying the right thing and feeling awkward. Be empathetic but try to avoid using judgemental or emotional language e.g. about a perpetrator

During the interview

Take your time: Profound feelings can overwhelm, distorting thoughts and recall. Bereavement is exhausting, impairing sleep and concentration. Allow for breaks.

Use their name: Refer to the person who has died by name and do not refer to them as 'the body'. It may be appropriate to ask them about the person who has died: "tell me about… / what was … like?" But equally, that may be difficult for some to answer.

Encourage a sense of safety: They may feel hypervigilant, self-protective, on edge. Be calm and keep your actions predictable.

Avoid 'why' questions: 'Why was he not wearing a bike helmet,' 'Why did you not get him to the hospital sooner…?' These sound accusatory, so it may be preferable to ask: 'Can you help me to understand…'

Avoid the 'How does that make you feel?' question: Opt instead for 'What went through your mind..' 'What has the impact been on you, your family'.

If they cry: Sit quietly, ask if they would like to take a moment and be guided by them on whether they wish to continue.

If you prompt an angry reaction: Simply apologise and say: "I am so sorry, I did not mean to upset you."

Everyone responds differently to grief: Make allowances. Some may wish to open up, others may avoid all reminders.

Sensitivity always applies: People do not 'get over' or 'move on' after a sudden, unexpected bereavement. They may come to terms with it but this can take time and they may still be affected by reminders. Be sensitive throughout all stages of the grieving process.

Be aware of stressors: Legal proceedings such as inquests, trials, and inquiries, as well as anniversaries, can add significantly to their distress. Their relationships and livelihoods may also be affected by the death.

Come full circle: If you can, try to end the interview by bringing them gently into the present moment - rather than dwelling on the past.

After the interview

Avoid jargon: When getting your picture shots, explain, involve but do not overwhelm with technical talk.

Avoid reassurances: Leave out the cliches such as 'time is a great healer', 'they would want you to be happy', 'it must be a relief in a way' etc.

Appreciate your privilege: Trusting you with their story at such a vulnerable time is a privilege. Check and double-check the facts. Write and frame your story with care and sensitivity, involving them as much as you can.

Next steps: Thank them for sharing their experiences with you. Explain what they can expect to happen next.

Be attentive as you leave: No matter how tight your deadline is, take time to offer resources for support.

Spare a thought for yourself: Few of us escape bereavement in our own lives, take care to look after yourself when covering these emotional assignments. Your interview may evoke difficult and emotionally troubling memories from your past - so be aware of this and seek support or guidance if these become overwhelming

Former BBC journalist Jo Healey is the author of Trauma Reporting, A Journalist's Guide to Covering Sensitive Stories. Through Trauma Reporting training, she educates journalists worldwide in how best to work with victims and survivors. She authored the UNESCO document Safety of Journalists Covering Trauma and Distress: Do No Harm, which has been translated into seven languages.

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