Mother who learned about son's death in 'brutal' way teaches police about empathy

Shirley Thiessen was on holiday in California, celebrating her 23-year-old son’s recent marriage when she received the news no parent wants to hear. Now she help officers bring empathy and knowledge to the uncomfortable job of delivering death notifications.

Calgary Police Chief Roger Chaffin gives Shirley Thiessen Award of Exceptional Recognition for her work

Shirley Thiessen and her son Jordan. He died in a workplace accident in 2012 and the delivery of the news by a California police officer was 'brutal,' she recalls. Thiessen now delivers her message of empathy to police officers. She recently received an award from Calgary's police chief for her efforts. (Submitted by Shirley Thiessen)

Shirley Thiessen was on holiday in California, celebrating her 23-year-old son's recent marriage when she received the news no parent wants to hear.

Her son Jordan had died in a workplace accident.

A California police officer showed up at the door, unaware of what had happened, and handed them a note with a phone number on it for a Calgary police officer. 

"It was brutal," she recalls. "We felt like we were an inconvenience to him. His edge disappeared when he found out why he was there."

Police chief's award

She later found out that Calgary police had asked their colleagues in California to deliver the bad news in person, but somehow it didn't happen. 

After being approached by Calgary police about her experiences, Thiessen began attending the force's death notification courses to talk about her experience.

Now, five years later, Thiessen helps police officers across Canada learn how to bring empathy to the uncomfortable job of delivering death notifications.

She also shares her story in a national police training video, talking about how she would have preferred to receive the news of her son's death.

Jordan Thiessen at his marriage to Elise Malone Thiessen in 2012, surrounded by his family. He died 12 days later in a workplace accident. (Submitted by Shirley Thiessen)

Recently she received the Calgary Police Chief's Award of Exceptional Recognition for her efforts.

"There is no end to Shirley's desire to make Calgary police officers more aware of the impact that a death notification can have on a family. In the face of her own personal tragedy, Shirley stepped forward to help others who would be placed in a similar situation," said Calgary police in a statement.

Receiving the award on Thursday night was an honour, Thiessen said.

"I consider it a great privilege to influence, even a little bit, how a family will receive news with empathy and compassion."

Common sense approach

Her advice isn't complicated, at least on the surface. 

"(It's) things that really seem like common sense. Tone of voice, your body language, your physical touch," she told the Calgary Eyeopener

"There are so many things that you can do that express empathy. This isn't a task to check off of your things to do. This is a family that has just received the most devastating news that they will ever hear. To be fully present and really care for them is just critical."

She also tells officers to be prepared to answer questions.

"Come armed with information. We wanted to know every little detail. We were desperate for every little detail."

The day she learned about Jordan's death is an unforgettable one for Thiessen and she hopes to help other families despite her negative experience.

"Grieving is a life-long process but I do want to lean in to becoming a better person as a result of it," she said.

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With files from the Calgary Eyeopener