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Death Notification

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Woman: And you just... found [her husband's body] there? Lying in the cold? How long had he been there?
Empathy: If you say 'Two days, maybe', it will be etched in her mind forever.

Whenever a movie shows the folks at home while there is a war going on, you are very likely to see this: a pair of military personnel in dress uniform, approaching the home of the soldier's family. The family will almost always know what this means.

It is worth mentioning that this job is very stressful for those tasked with the duty, as they have to constantly be the Bearer of Bad News of the worst sort.

While most common in war movies, it is also a trope tragically familiar to families of firefighters and police officers as well. When the notice is (most commonly) delivered in person, it is closely related to Due to the Dead. It would be disrespectful for the deceased's loved ones to inform them of the death through the news media along with the general public, after all. Compare to He Didn't Make It. May feature a Tragic Keepsake. If the notification is laced with white lies to spare the recipient pain or avoid tainting the deceased's memory, see The Power of Legacy.

If the notification's delivered by letter, you can expect it to take the form of a white envelope edged in black, with the paper the letter's written on having a similar design.

In some cases, this takes the form of a telegram, to the point where one will immediately guess the contents of a telegram received by a character in a wartime setting.

Should not be confused with Death Note.

As this is a Death Trope, unmarked spoilers abound. Beware.

These examples regret to inform you:

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    Anime & Manga 
  • Ikigami: The Ultimate Limit inverts the trope. People are given notification that they will die in the next 24 hours.
  • Attack on Titan: The readers aren't shown the actual notifying but before the Survey Corps returns to the Walls, several families of (named) fallen soldiers are shown to be anticipating their return while the audience knows what's to follow soon...
    • At some point, Hange is seen personally notifying Ilse's family of her death.

    Comic Books 

    Fan Works 
  • In Star Trek TOS fanfic Vengeance Captain Kirk ends up having to write these for Spock and Bones. He manages to write the letter to Joanna (Mc Coy's daughter), but nearly breaks down when it comes to writing about Spock's death.
  • In The Peace Not Promised, Professor McGonagall has to let Lily know about her father's sudden death, while Lily was packing to go home for Christmas holidays and see him. Remus, having access to the Marauder's Map, knows where she's gone and what it's likely to mean, since a similar thing happened when he lost his mother.
  • Agreement and Disputation: A policeman pulls Watson out of the house early due to a carriage accident. Unfortunately, the victim dies despite Watson's best efforts. The doctor insists on going to inform his widow personally rather than allowing a sleek, disinterested policeman to do the job.
  • The End of the World: There are phone booths in the mentoring center for the mentors to call the families of dead tributes and let them know their relatives are dead (although sometimes the families see it live on TV first). Most mentors and district escorts view it as a grim but vital chore. Ausonious Glass finds the process fun and loves to mock the dead tributes to their loved ones.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • Across the Universe (2007): Right after Lucy finishes singing about how her boyfriend (in the Army) will be coming home to visit soon his mother is notified he's dead.
  • Big Fish has one, when the main character is sent on a suicide mission and doesn't return. We know he's alive, but his wife doesn't. Of course, the son he tells this story to assumes it's another one of his dad's tall tales. It isn't.
  • The police version is shown in The Dark Knight, as Lt. Gordon's partners are forced to tell his wife about his taking the bullet for the mayor. That was proven to be a plot to trap the Joker by faking Gordon's death.
  • In The Fighting Sullivans, a movie Based on a True Story, Lt. Robinson (Ward Bond) personally delivers to Mrs. Robinson the news that all five of her sons have been killed. In Real Life, it took three men in uniform to report the Sullivans' deaths to their parents two months after the fact.
  • In First Man, the heads of NASA review a press release that has been prepared in the event Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin are stranded on the moon with no hope of rescue. Truth in Television - you can see the full text of the statement they quote from in the film here.
  • In The Human Comedy, Homer is a telegraph messenger boy in World War II, which means that he sometimes has to deliver death notification telegrams from the War Department. It's a downer, and it's even more of a downer when he has to read the telegram to a Hispanic mother who can't read English.
  • A League of Their Own: One of the girls gets a telegram telling her that her husband was killed in action. The man delivering the telegram never bothered to find out which woman on the team was supposed to receive the letter, causing much dread on the teams part. When he says he has to go back to the office and check, Jimmy takes the telegram and throws him out of the clubhouse.
  • The movie The Messenger (2009) focuses on the men who deliver the notices.
  • In Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang, the War Office sends these to the families of deceased soldiers, in the form of a telegram. Isabel receives one that later proves to be a forgery, in a bid to make her sell the farm.
  • Red Tails. The jeep pulls up outside Sofia's home, two officers walk up to Sofia, and Lucas doesn't even bother giving us any dialogue here.
  • At the start of The Right Stuff, the widow of a test pilot is shown cowering in fear from the saturnine black-clad priest sent to inform her of her husband's death.
  • Saving Private Ryan has a montage early on as Mrs. Ryan receives a series of death notices for all but one of her sons, preceded by a scene showing a typing pool of a few dozen women producing those notices by the thousands.
  • Sort of in Since You Went Away. Anne receives the standard telegram, but it says that her husband Tim is missing in action, and later the Happy Ending has them find out that he's alive. The later telegram informing the family that Jane's fiance Bill was killed in Italy arrives offscreen, with Anne telling Jane after Jane comes home.
  • Early in Star Trek Beyond, two Vulcans meet Spock at Starbase Yorktown to tell him that Ambassador Spock has died.
  • In Swing Kids (about teenagers in Hitler's Germany) one of the kids is forced into the Hitler Youth, and is assigned to deliver some small boxes to various people, all of whom scream after he leaves. He decides to open one and discovers a wedding ring and some ash - he'd been delivering the remains of people who had been executed and cremated.
  • Taking Chance: The very beginning of the film does this from the point of view of the military personnel delivering the notice.
  • During one of the dogfights in Top Gun, Goose cracks a joke about this after Jester "kills" them.
    Goose: The Defense Department regrets to inform you that your sons are dead because they were stupid.
  • We Were Soldiers:
    • Subverted, the notices are delivered by a taxi cab driver, implied to be an army veteran himself who really isn't enjoying the experience. Julia Moore and Barbara Geoghegan take it upon themselves to deliver the letters themselves, both to save the taxi driver from some of the anguish and out of a sense of responsibility to their neighbors.
    • Subverted again in the film's climax, when a car with two men in uniform stop in front of Julia's house...and one of them is Hal Moore, home from the war.
  • In Yamato, Kamio has to bring the news of Nishi's death to his mother.
  • The Australian film The Telegram Man (2018) has the title character delivering telegrams to isolated Outback farms, a job that makes him quite popular as the bearer of news from the outside world...until World War 2 breaks out.

  • A man gets a knock at the door, and it's a guy with a telegram. The man asks the delivery guy to sing it — he's never had a singing telegram before. The guy says he doesn't think he can. The man offers $100 to get the telegram in song. This convinces the guy. He clears his throat, reads the telegram and sings "Your sister, Rose, is dead!"

  • Discworld: Nobby Nobbs of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch is no longer allowed to deliver these after "that bet-you-a-dollar-you're-the-widow-Jackson nonsense." Carrot or Vimes usually handles it. (This is based on an urban legend that's probably as old as this trope.)
  • In Derek Robinson's black comedies of WW1 and WW2 air combat, the commanding officers of RAF squadrons at least try to do this appropriately when a pilot is killed. But when the bodies start piling up, one CO gratefully resorts to "fill-in-the-blanks'' form letters provided by his office clerk.
  • Star Trek:
    • In some novels Starfleet has a Casualty Notification Office to inform family members when someone is killed in the line of duty. Captain Kirk, though, still feels it appropriate that he should also send a personal letter when one of his crew dies.
    • Star Trek: Enterprise: After Trip Tucker fakes his death in the novel "The Good That Men Do" Trip asks Archer to notify his parents. Trip tells Archer when the best time to call them would be as his parents have health conditions they take medication for. Archer dutifully calls Trip's parents to notify them of Trip's death.
  • Star Wars Legends:
    • X-Wing Series: After Lujayne Forge is killed by Imperials, Wedge Antilles sends a hologram to her family to notify them of her death.
    • Later, in Wraith Squadron, Wedge is shown to be writing out the notification for the death of Jesmin Ackbar, to be delivered to her uncle, a well-known admiral. It takes him most of the night to finish it...but with the task done, at least he's able to sleep for that last hour. The admiral later thanks Wedge for the kind words regarding the pilot.
      • Subverted in the second Wraith Squadron novel, in which Ton Phanan dies and, when Face offers to help Wedge write the notification, he finds he's the one who'd be receiving it, since Phanan's closest relatives are distant cousins who've never met him.
  • In A Song of Ice and Fire novel A Dance with Dragons, Ramsay Bolton sends the Night Watch a false message stating Stannis Baratheon is dead to demoralize Stannis's forces. But did Ramsay send it, or did someone else...
  • In the Harry Bosch series, this is a frequent occurrence due to Harry's job as a homicide detective. Harry notes that, despite the hundreds of times that he has done it, it never gets easier and he's never sure that he's doing it right. He also remarks to a new partner that the difficulty of notifying the victim's family is also affected by the fact that they often need to be considered in the pool of suspects until proven otherwise.
  • By The Sword: After one battle, there's a scene where Kerowyn is going down the list of dead Sunbolts and marking the (few) names she needs to "write the letter" for.
  • The 1952 What's It Like Out There by Edmond Hamilton was a deconstruction of the heroic Space Opera he helped create. The Sole Survivor of a Mars expedition goes around to the families of his crew but ends up whitewashing the truth about how they died.
  • Subverted in Roald Dahl's autobiographical Going Solo, in which his mother received a telegram while he was serving in World War II and initially thought it was this, but didn't open it until one of her daughters came to be with her. When they actually read it, they found the telegram was not a death notice, but "Regret to advise you, your son wounded and in hospital in Alexandria." The relief was palpable.
  • Several Doctor Who Missing Adventures novels set during the UNIT era have Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart reflecting that the worst part of the job is writing to the parents of soldiers killed by the Monster of the Week, and not even being able to tell them what actually happened.
  • Since it's set in World War II, Catch-22 has these get sent out. Colonel Cathcart and Lieutenant Colonel Korn being the people they are, they're Multiple Choice Form Letters espousing Cathcart's deep personal grief when the recipient's father, husband, brother or son was killed, wounded or declared missing in action.
  • In the Vorkosigan Saga books, Miles realizes his grandfather has died in the night when he is addressed as "Lord Vorkosigan", rather than "Lord Miles", by a grim-faced retainer. Later, while far from home on covert ops, he dreads the day some minor functionary might begin a conversation by addressing him as "Count Vorkosigan, sir?", because that will mean that his beloved father Aral is dead and that Miles was not by his side when it happened. Exactly that happens at the end of Diplomatic Immunity, and it is exactly as heartbreaking as he feared.
  • Why Johnny Can't Speed by Alan Dean Foster opens with a letter from the California Highway Patrol informing the protagonist and his wife that their son was killed disputing a lane change in a future society where road rage is legal. Pops sets forth to get his revenge on the miscreant with his own Weaponized Car.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Space: Above and Beyond:
    • After the death of Nathan West's younger brother Neil, Nathan is shocked to discover that the notification letter was sent to the wrong address. He ends up writing a letter of his own home to inform his mother himself. It is implied that rather than being hand-delivered, the notices are sent in the mail in "ugly yellow envelopes".
    • This is seen again in the episode "Never No More": After someone's fighter gets locked with an enemy Ace Custom and is sent spiraling into a planet, it is stated in the debriefing that the enemy ace survived. When asked about the friendly pilot, the CO drops a yellow envelope on the table.
  • Sarah Jane Smith gets one of these visits from a UNIT colonel, accompanied by an entourage of armored trucks and gun-toting grunts (seriously, did they think Sarah Jane was going to eat them or something?), in The Sarah Jane Adventures episode "The Death of the Doctor". She doesn't believe it for a minute.
  • Doctor Who:
  • Variations on this trope turn up from time to time in M*A*S*H, although we don't usually get to see the news delivered.
    • One episode has Radar writing a heartwrenching letter for Colonel Potter to send to a deceased ambulance driver's folks. Made worse because, before he knew the man was dead, Potter was going to berate him for injuring patients with his careless driving.
    • When Hawkeye is declared Legally Dead by the army, his father is notified by telegram. Because of other machinations, like his mail being stopped and a visiting politician, Hawkeye couldn't even contact his father to tell him about the mistake.
    • The episode "Abyssinia Henry" ends with Radar coming into the O.R. to deliver some bad news.
    • One episode has a young officer ask Colonel Potter for advice on writing a letter to the family of a soldier killed under his command. Potter comments on how many such letters he's written himself and notes that It Never Gets Any Easier.
  • The Star Trek: Enterprise episode "The Forgotten" has Trip being asked to write one for an engineer who died in The Expanse. Trip can't bring himself to do it at first, because every time he starts the letter ends up describing his dead sister Elizabeth.
  • In the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "Eye of the Beholder" Captain Picard remarks that over his long Starfleet career he has had to tell many family members that their loved ones have died, but prior to the events of the episode, never from suicide. Picard then tells his officers that he would like to give the deceased officer's parents a reason why their son committed suicide.
  • In the pilot episode for Defiance, the McCawly family gets one of these after Luke is murdered.
  • On ER, after Gallant has been killed in Iraq, two military police show up at the hospital, looking for his wife, Neela. The minute he lays eyes on them, it's obvious that the desk clerk, a veteran himself, knows what they're going to tell her.
  • In Game of Thrones, ravens are usually used to send messages throughout the Westeros, and people have said to them "dark wings, dark words" which includes the death of nobles. Winterfell receives a raven informing Ned Starks execution, and everyone in Westeros receives word of King Joffrey's death..
  • The Dream Sequence/Imagine Spot in the 200th episode ("Life Before His Eyes") of NCIS has Gibbs pose the question "What would have happened if my wife and daughter had not been killed?" The ghost of Mike Franks shows him — Shannon and Kelly waiting for Gibbs to return home until a cadre of marines appears at their front door...
    • Discussed in the episode "Twenty Klicks" between Vance and Ducky when the chopper carrying Gibbs, McGee, IT Kevin, and three Red Shirts is shot down.
      Vance: Family notifications are your wheelhouse, Doctor. Would you mind?
      Ducky: My kingdom for a smaller wheelhouse.
    • "Blood Brothers" starts with a mother being told that her daughter was killed in action—after she's already lost one son and has another who's dying of leukemia.
    • Tony is on the receiving end of one in "Family First," though from McGee and Abby. It resembles very much a military notification detail, and Tony simply asks them if it's been confirmed before they can even begin to tell him.
  • In Law & Order: UK Matt Devlin shows up at the house of a fellow police officer and friend to tell his wife that they've found his dead body. She initially thinks he's just there casually. But then she sees his face and breaks down, refusing to let him actually say the words.
  • ANZAC Girls: Grace Wilson, an Australian Army nurse (specifically, a Matron, aka in charge of the whole hospital's nursing staff) serving on the front lines of World War I, receives a telegram of this sort and her hands start shaking before she even opens it — her brother has been killed. Reading it only confirms her worst suspicions. Unfortunately, she has a whole convoy of wounded soldiers to treat, and so she soldiers on without betraying her feelings any further until she's safely in her tent and can break down sobbing.
  • General Hospital. After one of mobster Sonny Corinthos' bodyguards is killed, he and right-hand man Jason go to inform the man's widow.
  • The Commish. Two police officers spend the entire day stalling over one of these. When they finally work up the nerve There Was Much Rejoicing from the family of the dear departed, who wasn't well liked.
  • The Bill. The officers go to inform a man his brother is dead and are surprised when he legs it out the back door instead. Turns out he's involved in criminal activity and assumed they were coming to arrest him.
  • Foyle's War. A telegraph boy has run away from his job after being attacked and abused by a woman he brought a death notice to. A Jewish psychiatrist counsels him that it was Nothing Personal, just her lashing out at the Bearer of Bad News. Feeling good after having helped the boy, the psychiatrist decides to go to the cinema...just in time to catch a newsreel about the recently liberated concentration camps. Fleeing from the cinema, he ends up murdering an escaped German prisoner he encounters.
  • Northern Exposure: In "Slow Dance," Joel has to tell Maggie that Rick has just died and her oblivious comments about her complicated relationship with Rick only make it harder for Joel to spit it out right away. He ends up leading into it with an awkward joke about death notifications.
    Joel: Uh, see, um, this guy goes on a trip, and, uh, he leaves his cat with his friend. Well, he calls his friend and asks how the cat is. Guy says, "The cat is dead." The guy says, "Geez. God, couldn't you break the news to me a little more gently? You know, lead into it-'Your cat crawled up on the roof, there was a loose tile, and he took a little fall.' Like that?" Next month, the guy goes on another trip. Calls his friend and asks how his mom is. Guy says, "Well- She crawled up on the roof and there was a loose tile."
    Maggie (smiling): Not bad.
    Joel: (sadly and gently)Rick crawled up on the roof
    Maggie's expression crumbles in realization.
  • In Quantum Leap (2022), former Army captain Addison tells Ben the story of when a soldier in her command died, and she had to inform the soldier's mother.
    Addison: She opened that door and she took one look at me and that Army chaplain and...she knew. And my mind just went blank. My carefully planned-out speech was gone. But in its place, the right words came to me. I told her that her son sacrificed himself for this to be a better world. And that there's nothing more noble than that. And I told her that...I told her that her son was a hero. And that for myself and everybody who knew him, we were forever changed because of how he lived his life with hope and courage. I told her the truth as it came to me from wherever the truth comes from.
  • In the premiere episode of Resident Alien, the town doctor Samuel Hodges is found dead, kicking off the plot of the alien who is posing as a doctor being brought into town to conduct the autopsy. When they learn that nobody has informed his wife yet, the Extreme Doormat mayor Ben Hawthorne is tasked with the job, but doesn't want to. In an Establishing Character Moment of him being the Jerkass Sheriff Mike Thompson says to give him her number, that he'll do it, that he doesn't give a shit.
  • Sue Thomas: F.B.Eye: In "The Leak", one of Sue's informants, Malik, goes missing after a raid that the terrorists seem to have known was coming. He insisted he didn't leak any information and seemed fidgety. His mother, who hasn't seen him, begs the FBI to find her son. After Malik's body turns up, Sue and Jack return to the young man's mother to break the unhappy news. She initially thinks they might have found him and begins sobbing when she hears the truth.

  • The ending of "Sullivan" by Caroline's Spine:
    ''It's not hard to reach back to the day
    When the war finally came home
    Uncle Sam will send you a telegram
    So he doesn't have to tell you over the phone
    I heard she cracked up
    When she found out what the war had cost
    And all five of her boys were lost...
    Say goodbye, bye, bye Mrs. Sullivan
    Go ahead and cry, cry, cry, cry, cry
    We regret to inform you that all of your sons have passed away
    All five, five, five, five
    So change your blue star to gold''

    Video Games 
  • Dragon Age: Origins has a Side Quest that involves delivering death notifications to widows. Actually Played for Laughs if you ask one of your more flippant teammates do it for you, resulting in quotes like Morrigan's "Your man has died. Get over it." or Oghren's "Good news lady! You're single!"
  • In Valkyria Chronicles III E2, Not only Kurt must bring the newsnote  of Gusurg's death to the dead guy's big sister, but he must also explain that Gusurg died as a traitor to Gallia, having chosen to defect to the invading Empire's Calamity Raven for the sake of a chance for his ostracized people to found their own country. And that Kurt killed Gusurg by his own hands. The big sister face the news solemnly, stating that Gusurg died for what he believed. This is the last straw for Kurt's psyche, and Riela and Imca must talk him to his senses. Yeah, it's that kind of story.
  • In Mass Effect 3, Shepard can deliver a death notification to an asari on the Citadel whose krogan husband died fighting the Reapers. Only if you helped the two of them get together in the previous game, though. It's fairly sad.
  • In a late-game sidequest in Borderlands 2, the player has to do this for the NPCs in Sanctuary after the death of Roland. It's actually one of the few moments in-game that's not played for laughs.
  • Disco Elysium has a Side Quest that ends in The Detective having to deliver one of these to the Working Class Woman you may have encountered earlier; you can chance upon her husband's corpse, dead of an accident, during your investigation. Whether you succeed or not (it's a fairly difficult Empathy check, made easier the more you've discovered during the investigation), it's one of the most heart-breaking moments of the game both in-universe and out. Even Hypercompetent Sidekick Kim is of limited help, and comments that he's really bad at handling death notifications.
  • One sidequest in Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning has you take over the job of delivering death notifications from a soldier who is drowning himself in booze because he couldn't handle the reactions of the dead soldiers' kin anymore. He considers himself a coward for it.
  • Into the Breach: Sometimes, you'll have a no-win scenario where you either let the Vek damage a building or shove the Vek into said building, damaging it but also wounding or killing the Vek. When you do this with some pilots, such as generic Detritus characters or Camila Vera, they'll sometimes play a line about making sure to inform the families themselves. Archimedes won't inform the families if a mech caused the damage (indeed, he'll often request a press blackout), but if it was a Vek attack, he'll tabulate the casualties' extended families and dispatch condolence letters. Yes, all at once. Yes, before your next turn.

    Web Comics 

    Western Animation 
  • Lampooned extensively for a gag in the American Dad! episode "Wife Insurance". Stan gets kidnapped during a mission in Columbia, his wife Francine is met with a man at their front door carrying a pair of boots and an American flag... who's from Langley Boot and Flag Cleaning. But then she's approached by Bullock, Stan's superior at the CIA, who brings bad news: his car broke down nearby and needs help for its warranty. Then he brings in a priest, who brings further bad news: he was caught having sex with a man and is being excommunicated. Eventually Bullock informs Francine that Stan is MIA, which is still devastating news, but fortunately, he escapes and returns home no worse for wear.
  • Exo Squad: According to one of the post-episode "Character card" segments the show featured, Avery Butler personally records a message for the family of every Jumptrooper who dies under his command. Given that the homeworlds are occupied, he can't deliver these messages. He still records them.
  • In The Simpsons, a former street punk turned soldier named Armin Tamzarian delivers one of these to the mother of his MIA superior officer, Seymour Skinner, in a flashback. It's then subverted when he can't bring himself to tell her and pretends to be her son; he is the man now known as Principal Skinner. Also an example of artistic license, since in the American military, the men who give the notification are traditionally at the same rank as the deceased or higher.
  • In Thunder Cats 2011 prodigal general Grune, arriving home from a years-long search for an Ancient Artifact, delivers word of his comrade Panthro's loss to mutual friend King Claudus while handing over one of the former's nunchucks. The details are suspiciously vague, not to spare Claudus emotionally, but to hide Grune's betrayal and defection to Big Bad Mumm-Ra until their invasion forces are marshalled.
  • One shows up in an episode of Pingu, of all places. We aren't told the details, obviously, but during "Pingu Delivers the Mail", Pingu and his father deliver a black-edged envelope to one of their customers — who starts crying.
  • The Futurama episode "The Honking" begins with Bender getting a letter about his uncle Vladimir dying. The team attend the will reading, which sets off the rest of the plot.
    Hermes: ...and for Bender... Uh, oh! A black-bordered envelope.
    Amy: Oh, no! Someone you know must have died.
    Bender: I hope it was one of my enemies. Those guys suck.