National Water Safety Forum


What to consider when working with bereaved families



Both as an individual and through my job in the emergency services, I have been involved in rescue missions for more than two decades.

Those experiences of trying to save lives, which on some occasions have been unsuccessful, have led me to reflect on the perspective of those who lose a loved one.  Some people undertake fundraising, some lean more towards getting involved in support groups and others try to raise awareness to prevent further deaths.  

The above is true of people who have lost someone special in a fire, on the road or as a result of drowning.

Irrespective of the nature of the tragedy, it’s important to try to offer timely and appropriate support to those who are expressing a desire to volunteer. In some instances that’s ensuring they are aware of some of the fantastic bereavement support charities that are out there. In some cases it is necessary to prepare families for the inquest and inform them about the process. Inquests can drag on for many months or even years and can be daunting, particularly if you have little experience of court rooms.

There are many ways that bereaved individuals and families can help us as safety professionals. Here are some examples:


  • Lobbying for change in legislation, establishing petitions, driving policy change or fundraising to improve the safety of a location. We have seen this with water safety in particular, where campaigning has led to improved barriers, lighting or signage in locations where there has been more than one tragedy. Other bereaved families and individuals have worked to change laws, on issues such as parental bereavement leave.
  • Getting involved in research, enrolling for academic study or being employed by organisations involved in life-saving.
  • Volunteering directly for one of the emergency services and contributing to education programmes run by safety organisations.
  • Engaging in grief support work such as giving talks and providing workshops to help others who are going through the process of living with loss.
  • Speaking to young people and children in schools, colleges and organisations such as the Scouts in order to promote safety messages.


There are some really important factors for professionals to consider when working with bereaved people who are supporting their work:


  1. Are they ready? Too soon is too soon. Taking on volunteer work before a funeral or an inquest may hinder the process of grieving. Organisations should have a process for sitting down with individuals and asking questions to assess risk to the newly bereaved. Some of this will involve broaching sensitive topics relating to physical and mental wellbeing.
  2. Setting expectations: After many years I know that bereaved families and individuals invariably want things to change quickly. It is vital to manage expectations, because often achieving changes in the law or policy resembles a marathon not a sprint. We need to be clear about what is possible from the outset of working with a bereaved family or individual. Failure to do so may cause further anguish.
  3. Managing the media: Engaging with the media can be a powerful way to share safety messages. However, always be aware that journalists want to get clicks, sell papers and secure hard-hitting interviews. This means that some journalists will not have a bereaved person’s best interests at heart. If possible, try to arrange some training for volunteers before any media appearances.
  4. Social media: Sadly, stories about fatal accidents can also attract negative attention from the public, especially when they are shared on social media. Over the years I have read vile comments posted anonymously and seemingly with no concern about the impact they may have. If we are working with bereaved families, we need to make them aware of the potential for a negative response.
  5. Passion versus professional limitation: Those at the front line of rescue missions are dealing with deaths and serious incidents on a regular basis. As a result of this, we know that the incidence of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is high among emergency service employees. So it is also important for organisations that appoint people to work with bereaved families and individuals to offer support to their staff.
  6. Moving on: Over time, some bereaved people will want to move on from volunteering or perhaps reduce their level of involvement due to changes in their circumstances. It is important not to make assumptions and check in with volunteers before approaching them to be involved in a campaign or event. Some may feel awkward about stepping away from or stopping volunteer work completely. Volunteer co-ordinators should have a system in place to review a volunteer's work and assess their needs. Look out for the signs that a bereaved person wants to move on and respect their wishes when they do.
  7. Anniversaries and life occasions: Bereaved families may want to mark dates that are significant to their loss such as birthdays and anniversaries. Organisations should be sensitive to these dates if families are volunteering with them.
  8. Litigation: Some bereaved people may be involved with pursuing compensation or legal recourse for negligence or lack of health and safety procedures after an accidental death. This will always be stressful and careful thought should be given to engaging volunteers to do community safety work during a criminal or civil case.
  9. Safeguarding and vetting: There are legislative requirements for safeguarding if using volunteers to work with children or vulnerable adults. These checks are there to protect individuals and organisations in the event of an allegation or incident.


This list provides some pointers to consider, to ensure that families, volunteers and organisations are mindful about the way they support each other. Organisations such as the NCVO and The Charity Commission have helpful guidance to help organisations who work with volunteers to ensure positive and valued relationships.


Dawn Whittaker
National Water Safety Forum

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