Ky. family pushes for Nathan’s Law, which would require more grief training for state’s coroners

Imagine being told a loved one had died by way of nothing more than a note, or simply being told to just call someone.
Published: Feb. 14, 2022 at 6:11 PM EST
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LEXINGTON, Ky. (WKYT) - Imagine being told a loved one had died by way of nothing more than a note, or simply being told to just call someone.

It sounds heartless and cold, but one Lexington mother says the experience her family had with the coroner’s office left them traumatized. That experience has now spurred Senate Bill 66, proposed legislation she hopes could help other central Kentucky families find more compassion in death.

Grief can consume you or it can motivate you. In those quiet moments of simple things like painting, when the brush hits the paper, Stacey Burnett thinks about her son Nathan.

“He had just turned 18 on St. Patrick’s Day,” said Stacey Burnett of Lexington.

Last spring Nathan Burnett was a senior at Henry Clay High School. He loved baseball, played up the role of big brother and was adventurous.

“He loved hiking, camping and jumping off bridges into lakes, which always made me super nervous,” said Burnett.

In March, the Burnetts sent their son off to enjoy a snowboarding trip to Utah.

“We had talked to him that day and he said he was having the greatest day of his life and that Utah was beautiful,” said Burnett.

But later that afternoon, the Burnetts experienced the unthinkable when a coroner’s van pulled up to their home.

“Immediately because it was the coroner and we just knew he died, but we started asking, ‘Is he dead? What happened, is he dead?’” said Burnett.

But all she said she got from a Fayette County deputy coroner was a scrawled out note.

“He just said, ‘You just need to call this number, I don’t know anything,’” said Burnett.

Burnett and her husband had to learn their son died in a snowboarding accident from a county sheriff hundreds of miles away.

“I’ve read studies, but I also know from experience how you find out about such a traumatic event kind of shapes your healing process,” said Burnett.

Burnett said the manner in which she found out her son died was traumatizing not only for she and her husband, but also their other children who had to witness it.

“Every time I look back at the moment of finding out that he passed away, the way I remember it, just seems so traumatic and so cold and so unappreciative of his life,” said Burnett.

WKYT talked with Fayette County Coroner Gary Ginn, who said compassion is important him and that he tries to instill it in his deputies.

Ginn also said he wasn’t there when this particular notification was made, but he does say that death notifications are the hardest thing his office does.

Ginn went on to say it is not uncommon for his deputies to write down an officer’s number and name to give to victim’s families. And when asked about how he prefers a notification to be made, he said in person, and that he would hope the tone was compassionate.

But that is not what Burnett said happened in their case, and she found out her family wasn’t alone in their concerns and it’s why not even a year after losing her son she is pushing to keep his name alive with Nathan’s Law.

“I started to look into the training for coroners and what the training was for delivery of the notifications and their bylaws having nothing,” said Burnett.

The proposed legislation, Senate Bill 66, aims to push for more grief training for the state’s coroners, to clarify who’s responsible for death notifications and who is to be present.

“You can’t teach compassion, but you can at least train people how to be compassionate in a certain situation,” said Burnett.

While the grief is still present, it’s what Nathan’s Law could do for other families in a similar situation that now motivates this mother in honor of her son.

“I just like that his death can have a positive impact in some way,” said Burnett.

When asked about Nathan’s Law, Fayette County Coroner Gary Ginn told WKYT that if there is a way to better his department and add additional training he says he is for it.

Nathan’s Law passed out of the Senate and now sits in the Kentucky House.

Some county coroners WKYT talked with confirm there is no formal training on the books and while they know it’s needed, they worry what it will cost an office many times that is already under-funded.

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