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Posted on Jan 15, 2015

Death notification via social media is never a good idea

On Jan. 4, troopers in Lewis County were called to a two-vehicle collision on State Route 12 involving a passenger car and semi-truck. The driver of the passenger car, Jay Sume of Randle, was fatality injured when the vehicle he was driving crossed the center line, impacting the front of the semi-truck.The cause of the collision was still under investigation last week.

This fatality collision presented another obstacle for troopers. Sume’s wife arrived on scene after reading a message of the incident on the social media site FaceBook. Troopers were not prepared to notify her of the death of her husband, or answer questions on how the death occurred when she arrived on scene.

FINN WILLIAM, wsp column

Trooper William A. Finn

Investigators were still collecting evidence and determing a preliminary cause of the incident. Troopers were extremely concerned the final images Sume’s wife would remember of her husband would have an emotionally lasting  impact. Troopers were faced with the difficult task of telling her that her husband had died while she looked at the wreckage of the scene.

Social media has become an important part of everyday life. Notifying friends or family of milestones and offering congratulations to another on a job well done can be important ways to share our lives with those we care about. Social media also informs us of impending dangers and where critical information can be found during a significant event. It uses words and pictures to help us understand our world.

However, before posting a message or picture of a tragic incident, it is always a good idea to think of the family that may be affected by your words or images. It may be best to tweet just the facts, such as “Road closed, use alt route!”

You may recall a similar incident in December 2013 when a Vancouver woman unknowingly tweeted her husband’s death and then realized the person killed was indeed her husband. She then began asking investigators and passing motorists, through social media, for more details to confirm her suspicions. Troopers were able to notify the woman in person, before she confirmed the death on social media.

Another case in Vancouver last March left a motorist with serious injuries. The driver of the causing vehicle, while passing a collision scene, was attempting to capture images of troopers investigating a fatality collision for social media. The driver’s action not only caused an injury collision but had the potential of notifying yet another family their 18-year-old loved one had died before troopers could make a more compassionate notification.

At times, the Washington State Patrol posts pictures of critical incidents and offers infromaton to the public on social media sites. Photos are only posted after families have been notified.

The task of notifying family members of a loved one’s passing is difficult and painful. Troopers take pride knowing they can bring comfort to a grieving family. The comfort may be given by staying with a wife who is home alone until a friend or family member can be with them. The comfort may also be given by answering a specific question about the investigation.

Troopers cannot offer personal comfort or answer questions when families learn of loss over social media.

Trooper William A. Finn is a public relations officer for the Washington State Patrol’s District No. 5 in Vancouver.

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