This toolkit aims to help senior leadership in police forces to support staff after the loss of a colleague to suicide. It may also be adapted to support staff who lose a family member or close friend outside the force to suicide.
Police officers and staff from different roles across the service, as well as membership organisations, have contributed their insights and experiences to the development of this toolkit. We have also used good practice from other sectors and organisations including the ambulance service.
Section 3 - when suicide happens
- What to do: immediately
- What to do: next 48 hours
- What to do: the following weeks and months
- Managing the risk to other employees
- Supporting and attending the funeral
- Helping staff who want to ‘do something’
- Reinforce and build trust in leadership
- Getting back to ‘normal’
- Inform the response structure (Gold command/ critical incident) and the local federation or association representative for the person who has died.
- Enact your postvention plan - ensure you include the following:
- Identify who is impacted by mapping your priority audiences from the centre out. Remember it’s not always those working closest who are most affected, there may be former colleagues on other teams, colleagues on sick leave or friends who have recently retired who will want to know. There may also be relational or disciplinary issues that need to be taken into account at this point in planning your immediate response.
- Put in place peer support for the person managing the situation on the ground – someone from your postvention group, or a peer with experience in dealing with the death of a suicide (check they feel able to and are not a close colleague of the person who has died).
- Start communicating with those most affected – share this responsibility among you, taking care to identify the right individuals to deliver the news. Ensure the right combination of seniority and natural empathy to demonstrate from the outset this loss matters.
- immediate team (on and off duty)
- the family
- who will deliver the death warning?
- will you appoint a FLO?
- role of the staff association/federation rep
- close colleagues
- and the wider force.
- Mobilise federation/staff association support – for all who would benefit.
- Sort operational logistics - restrict the log, relieve affected staff on duty, put in a fresh team if necessary.
- Start putting staff support in place now - but recognise not everyone will feel ready to access structured help immediately.
- give affected staff time and space to be together to talk now
- utilise (or create) designated quiet rooms
- draw on existing wellbeing, OH, chaplaincy and mental health resource
- stay vigilant to employees needs as no one size fits all.
- Pay particular attention to those affected by the death working in high-risk roles such as safeguarding, firearms, and roads policing, or attending challenging incidents. Take care to check in on these individuals and be prepared to relieve them of front-line duty whilst reassuring them that in doing so they are not letting their team down.
- close colleagues
- line manager
- local team
- local management
- first responders on the scene
- ex/retired colleagues
- social groups
- wider force employees
- senior management
- social media groups
What to do: next 48 hours
Be flexible and listen – what do people want and need right now?
Leadership, local management and wellbeing leads need to take this time to really listen to colleagues. Team relationships and culture might dictate who needs help and when. It may be that the team wants to continue working through those first days of grief, but that they need time off and more support after the memorial or funeral service.
Some officers and staff prefer to be in the building, off duty but with other colleagues for moral support. Some want to be at home with their family, some want to get on with the job. There may be cultural, religious or generational differences in how people want to grieve and the expectations upon them regarding mourning rituals and the time needed to fulfil them.
It may take more time and resource but having a locally appropriate response, even down to the individual level, will have more positive impact on recovery than a ‘one size fits all’ response.
This is more personal and may be longer term for some people. It really comes down to line management recognising who’s been impacted and just being sensitive to how long it may take someone to recover from that.
Continue to communicate openly
Careful co-ordination of internal and external communications will be important in the first days following the death. Do not make any official statements until the death has been formally confirmed and carefully co-ordinate your employee communication in consultation with your postvention group, the family and communications team.
If the next of kin continues to request that the death not be disclosed as a suicide, an employer may not be able to maintain confidentiality. If information has already spread through informal communications, senior managers are at risk of appearing disingenuous if there is no acknowledgement of the manner of death.
Ongoing open liaison with the family to resolve this will be important, being honest that it is more beneficial to carefully manage how a death by suicide is communicated, than to allow rumours to spread among staff. You could discuss the use of terms like ‘may have died by suicide’ or ‘may have taken their own life’.
As soon as you are able, provide an official in-house statement explaining the circumstances (where possible) for all employees and include the offer of support to those affected.
Consider also sending a more personal message to those closest to the person who has died to explain the internal process into the death and what information may or may not be expected to be released to the public.
Here is a summary of the most relevant advice
- Refrain from reporting details of suicide methods.
- Avoid making unsubstantiated links between separate incidents of suicide.
- Don’t give undue prominence to the news with dramatic language, extensive use of photographs and memorials of people who have previously died [treat it as you would any death in service].
- Manage speculation about a ‘single trigger’ for a suicide. Suicide is complex and seldom the result of a single factor.
- Sensitively portray the devastation left behind for families, friends and communities following a death by suicide.
- Be wary of over-emphasising community expressions of grief (for example romanticised comments and montages of images of floral tributes), as this can inadvertently glorify suicidal behaviour to others who may be vulnerable.
- Avoid outdated and judgmental terms like ‘committed suicide,’ ‘successful suicide,’ ‘failed suicide attempt,’ or ‘completed suicide.’
- Use ‘died by suicide’ and ‘took his/her/their own life’ instead.
- Steer clear of comments, such as ‘in a better place’, ‘found peace’ and ‘heaven has gained another angel.’
Managers in particular can worry about saying the wrong thing whilst feeling the need to remain composed and in control. The postvention group can support them to prepare and plan what is to be said. Reassure them that there is no shame in expressing emotion; rather it conveys compassion and demonstrates healthy grieving.
Managing media and social media interest
There may be media interest in the death by suicide of a member of the police service, so ensuring that communications colleagues responsible for the press office function are fully briefed from the outset is key. Ideally, you will also have senior representation for external communications on the postvention group.
Agree a template holding statement in advance as a starting point if needed. Some suggested wording is below:
It is with great sadness that we share the news that XX Police has lost a very dear colleague. [Name and title] or [the officer/manager/member of staff], whose family has asked not to be named, died [this morning/ yesterday, + insert date].
Our colleague, a much-loved member of the team, was [insert details the family has agreed/you deem suitable to share – eg, married with children and had worked for the force for a considerable number of years].
On behalf of everyone here at [XX Police], including the communities we serve, we would like to offer our sincere condolences to our colleague’s family and friends at this difficult time.
This will deeply affect many people within the force and we are supporting the family and our staff. We would ask that the press respect the privacy of the family. We will not be making any further announcements at this time.
The statement should be treated as reactive and only used if deemed appropriate by the leadership team. Ideally, this should be cleared by the family/next of kin. Remind all staff not to speak to the media or discuss the death at/on public forums as per your standard crisis communications procedures.
Monitoring social media
Social media can also become a vehicle for people to express their anger, or to apportion blame for the death of a colleague. If possible, speak to anyone within the workforce who may be using social media in this way to remind them of the need to respect the family’s wishes and privacy at a very difficult time.
Posted comments can sometimes contain unsafe messages and sometimes include expressions of suicidal ideation by friends or family of the deceased.
Ensure that an agreed statement is shared on your own closed social media channels, such as a staff Facebook page.
Consider a role for a member of staff (perhaps on the postvention group) that involves monitoring and informing HR leads of social media posts around the death of a colleague. It is almost impossible to control what will be shared, but by rapidly responding to misinformation when talking to staff, or being vigilant to expressions of suicidal ideation, some management of the consequences of social media activity is possible.
Expressions of suicidal intention should be taken seriously and addressed with urgency.
Dealing with practicalities
The family liaison representative should continue to support the family with any relevant practical matters. This could include accessing financial support, information on workplace benefits after death in service and arranging a funeral. Your local federation team is an important resource and support at this time, especially in ensuring that the family receives all the help available to them.
The force may also need to request the return of the employees’ uniform and other work-related items, which should be handled sensitively and with care. It is best to keep channels of communication open with the family for as long as they need you to. You can also inform family that the federation team is there for them in the future too, when they may wish to talk more about the person they have lost once time has moved on.
Managers at all levels have said that they have struggled to hold all of their responsibilities at a time of immense pressure – and often while grieving themselves. While supporting their team, dealing with family and the administration of losing an employee, there can be an expectation that ‘normal’ everyday business has to continue.
Supporting managers through postvention is essential. This may be through very regular check-ins with HR to ensure that the manager is not being overwhelmed by their responsibilities. It may also be via a peer support system, where a manager from a different team is available to support on logistical or operational duties such as arranging cover for those on leave - or just being available to listen.
I was given 48 hours to put everything in place, visit the family, manage staff. I felt: ‘do you not know what’s happened here - back off.’ I couldn’t do my job for 48 hours, but then people were looking for other work to be done. It is not a 48-hour operation.
Supporting and promoting healthy grieving
Line managers are not expected to be experts on grief, but it is important to know that grieving is a process that varies from person to person. People will experience different feelings from their colleagues, and this is likely to change over time.
Senior management and line managers can help support this natural grieving and healing process by:
- Being aware of what types of workplace concessions might be made in the first few days and weeks (time off, lightened or alternative duties, funeral attendance).
- Allowing time and space for those who want to continue to talk about the colleague they have lost, understanding the importance of telling stories and sharing experiences.
- Being available, being visible and talking to employees. Remember to include your remote workers and those on leave in any communications.
- Helping find the right balance between commemorating the deceased, but not memorialising the death in a dramatic or glorified way.
- Being a role model for healthy grieving. It is okay - and even beneficial - for managers to acknowledge their own feelings regarding the loss of a colleague, and if it feels comfortable, to share their own coping strategies.
- Not putting a deadline on grief. For those most affected, life has changed, and it will take time to adjust.
I was given the weekend off. But I came back to work on the Monday (I needed to get back to normality) and that was it. Done. I didn’t hear anything about it after that. It was like it never happened.
Taking care of yourself
This stage of postvention support is particularly challenging and it is very common to feel anxious about saying or doing the wrong thing, or even making things worse. Remember that even by just acknowledging the need for ongoing support, by listening and by bringing in the right people together, you are making an enormous difference to those affected by suicide.
Look out for everyone in the postvention delivery team at this stage – all of whom will be dealing with difficult conversations and circumstances.
What to do: the following weeks and months
Managing the risk to other employees
It is essential that support after a suicide is ongoing, and that staff have repeated opportunities to access it beyond the first few days following a suicide. Collaboration, continuity and co-ordination between local management, wellbeing support and HR needs to continue beyond the initial response, especially for those employees who are struggling with their loss.
Have regular check-ins with the team, bring people together around two weeks after the death, and again a month after the death, so that colleagues know that there is no ‘time limit’ to their grief and the support that is available to them. Be prepared for some employees to seemingly take a step backwards in their grief.
This wasn’t just a job; it was a personal thing. The force had no idea how much that affected me. I didn’t realise probably for about a month how much I was struggling.
Managers will continue to have the very challenging task of balancing the need to care for and support affected employees, with the demands of police service provision. Continue to consider the needs of line managers at this point. They must not be isolated at this time. They need to continue to work with HR and their own supervisor to clarify the policies and boundaries of flexibility regarding accommodating employee needs and any changes in workloads or staffing.
Specialist bereavement support
Every area in the country should have a local suicide bereavement specialist service that can help with staff who need this level of support. Find out what is available in your area:
Your local federation may also be able to access local bereavement support.
Supporting and attending the funeral
Balancing the family’s wishes with those of colleagues can remain challenging, especially when arranging the funeral of the person who has died. Most forces have an officer in place who is experienced in managing this relationship and putting in place the ceremonial aspects of a police funeral. It is worth, in your preparation phase, ensuring that the ceremonial officer has had some basic training in suicide awareness to be able to deal with complex grief.
If the family agrees, attending the funeral should be open to anyone who wants to attend from the force. This of course will have operational repercussions, but it is an important aspect of dealing with suicide bereavement for those who are affected. The force should be supportive in addressing operational logistics for the day.
The time around the funeral is another important milestone for supporting staff. When the death is by suicide, often the emotional responses are amplified, and the remembrance service can be instrumental in promoting healing. However, tricky issues such as the circumstance of the death, the state of relationships in the team, can all surface again.
They are referred to as ‘police funerals’ but they are not; they are family funerals with an element of police involvement and the element very much depends on what the family wants. This is very important.
Helping staff who want to ‘do something’
Some staff might feel a strong need to ‘do something’ after the death of a colleague as a way of coping and making sense of it all. The force can support this well-intentioned response by offering ideas and opportunities to help that are appropriate, proportionate and sensitive to the family.
Some forces have offered suicide awareness training to staff as a way of channelling this need into a practical and powerful way to support each other.
Condolence books, memorials, charity bike rides and other fundraisers are also helpful ways to remember and celebrate the life of a colleague. Be sensitive about setting a precedent that may be hard to follow, or overshadowing a family’s efforts.
When we lose someone particularly to suicide, everyone wants to do something. As police we fix things. We want memorials, things named after people, but it needs to be a streamlined approach, or it is not ideal for the family.
Reinforce and build trust in leadership
Feeling cared for and supported in the immediate aftermath of a traumatic event is important in the healing and recovery process. The positive outcomes of this response can contribute to a stronger, more engaged, and positive workplace culture.
The opposite is also true: if leadership fails to respond promptly, appropriately, and sensitively to a suicide, there will inevitably be at least some loss of trust and confidence. The overall impact of the traumatic event may be magnified if employees feel that management did not care or did not know what to do and therefore did nothing.
One way to establish trust is for leaders to acknowledge how they have been personally affected by the loss. It is also important that all staff are aware of the existence of your postvention plan as an element of the force’s wider mental health and wellbeing support. This helps to reassure that leadership are fully committed to supporting staff should it be needed.
Just because you put a uniform on doesn’t make you immune to the adverse impacts. How an organisation deals with its staff, looks after them, is imperative to everything linked to performance. You need your staff at work, if you get it wrong you can lose staff for years.
Preparing for reactions to anniversaries, events and milestones
For those affected by the suicide, anniversary or milestone reactions might emerge. Employees should be reassured that this is a normal response.
Due to the complicated nature of suicide, some employees may still struggle with the experience months or years after many others have come to terms with their loss and are coping better. In preparation for this, the postvention group and line managers could consider working with those who are directly affected to discuss how to mark these occasions respectfully and supportively.
Postvention leads should be alert to an anniversary or birthday. This time could be used to check in and offer quiet space or a chance to come together and share memories and stories.
Some colleagues may be expected to be part of a coronial process. If this is the case, make sure that they are supported as needed. Being involved as a friend and colleague of the person who has died will differ hugely from any previous experiences in a coroner’s court.
Getting back to 'normal'
A colleague’s suicide can affect everyone, although the impact might be different, and each employee will respond in their own way.
Even when work appears to have returned to ‘normal’, some will still feel the loss deeply. The challenge, particularly for line managers, is to help employees move on while being respectful of their feelings.
I didn’t realise I was affected until I was being filmed about suicide for another project a couple of years later and I had a bit of a breakdown.
Of course, police will continue to respond to suicides as part of their daily work. They will be coming into contact with grieving and shocked relatives and any one of those experiences might lead them to return to the loss of a colleague and the grief and painful emotions of that loss.
Being mindful of these possible reactions and checking in after difficult jobs are simple ways that managers can remain aware of their teams’ needs.
We can’t tell DCs what the next job on the radio is going to be and it might just be the final straw. They then get told they are either well enough to come to work or perhaps they can be restricted to the office. The sergeants, inspectors and above have to look at those two things - dealing with grief of the staff and carrying on business as usual.