While social media and cell phone technology continue to advance, so does the way people communicate and receive information, both good and bad.
These days, news of tragic events spreads faster than ever before, often leaving officials and traditional media in the dust. The long-standing practice of waiting until kin has been notified of a death by officials before releasing information is being trampled by text messages and Twitter tweets that are often incomplete, inaccurate or false.
For Garrard County Coroner Daryl Hodge, this is making the already difficult task of notifying family members of a death much more complicated, and potentially harmful for those whose lives have just been shattered.
“I can’t keep up with it,” Hodge said. “I mean, the pictures on the phone, the texting, Facebook and Twitter. There’s a lot of information that goes out that’s untrue. Because they don’t have all the facts yet.”
In addition to relaying false information, Hodge said many people do not understand how differently people react when they learn a loved one is dead. When a person is notified of a family member’s death by technology rather than someone trained in the process, there’s no way to monitor their reaction.
Last month, Sarah Wilson, a Garrard County High School student, died in a car accident while traveling as a passenger to her grandparents’ house. Her 14-year-old sister was home alone when she received a text message notifying her of Sarah’s death.
Hodge said when he and a pastor initially went to notify the family, they were greeted by the young teenager, who had not yet heard the news of her sister’s death.
“When we went up to the door and the little girl answered, I¿had my chart just like this,” Hodge said while covering his chest with a folder, “so she couldn’t see my name tag.”
He asked the girl if her parents were home and she said no, not seeming suspicious of the two men or acting in any way out of the ordinary. Hodge said when they learned Sarah’s mother was on her way home from work in Lexington, they decided to give her enough time to get home before trying again.
When Hodge and the pastor returned to the home, the mother still was not there and Sarah’s sister answered the door again, this time in a completely different state of mind, having learned of her sister’s death via a text.
“She was in hysterics,” Hodge said. “She was trying to say ‘what happened, what’s going on, nobody will tell me.’”
The girl had been completely alone with the news before Hodge arrived, and all she knew was that her sister was dead.
Lincoln County Coroner Farris Marcum said the problem with such situations is that the younger sister was left to wonder how her sister died.
“You need to know the facts,” Marcum said. “Saying ‘I heard your sister was killed,’ they heard it, but do they have the facts?”
Marcum said that leaves people like Sarah’s little sister only knowing one thing but needing more information and no where to turn to get it.
Hodge said people need to become more aware of what they are doing before placing that text or call.
“Until they know for a fact that the family’s been notified, there’s no need to say anything,” he said. “Once it’s out there, you’re not going to stop it. There’s going to be somebody that thinks it’s their job and their responsibility to be the first to tell.”
But Hodge said there is actually good reason for officials to report tragedy to family members. And being the bearer of bad news is something he’s familiar with.
Hodge has been pastoring since he was 18 and coroner for 11 years. He made his first death notification when he was 21.
“I’ve been with families in the darkest hours of their lives,” he said. “In the years I’ve been coroner, I’ve only had to tell somebody by phone twice.”