Each of the four years during which I pursued my Psy.D. in clinical psychology I had what was called a “practicum placement,” being a job at some mental health facility where I learned the crafts of assessment and treatment. It was at one of those placements that I had what was easily my most intense professional experience. I essentially played the Grim Reaper for a year as a crisis interventionist for the Denver Police Department.
When your job is to get involved in crisis situations for an entity like the Denver Police Department, you are simply in for some heavy shit. Think about it. One could argue that anything that gets a cop involved represents some form of crisis. If a cop determines the situation is hectic enough to bring in outside professionals to help (cops of course being crusty, seen-it-all types who prefer control and so don’t prefer to get others involved), that means the situation involves…heavy shit. Heaviest shit, even.
The job had a certain reputation among my fellow students. First, it paid (which among practicum placements was not always the case), and in fact, it paid pretty well. Second, it wasn’t a job for just anyone, given its nature. There was a certain swagger among those who had the job or were veterans of it. The job wasn’t for the faint of heart. If you’d done this job, it was understood that you’d proved your mettle under very hot conditions.
The job involved two responsibilities: helping out victims, survivors, or family members of the same in the immediate aftermath of a crime, and, second, doing death notifications. In other words, sometimes you were there to clean up the mess caused by the Grim Reaper, and sometimes you were there to be the Grim Reaper.
I’ll write about the first kinds of experiences some future day. Suffice to say for now, I worked with people literally in the presence of the deceased beloved.
The second set of experiences is what I want to describe today, at least begin to—performing death notifications. It is of course a dark and difficult subject. If you opt to pass on reading about it, I’d understand. If, however, you can do what we crisis interventionists did ourselves in performing the role—being, to adopt a clinical mindset about the experience—then perhaps you too can gain some pretty fascinating insight into the human condition like I did once upon a time. What I saw and experienced in performing these was nothing short of the complete stripping away of a human being’s psychological defenses, and what happens in the moments after as they struggle to assimilate the unfathomable, and begin the long, arduous slog of rebuilding their now shattered understanding of this life.
You still there? Good for you. I’ll do my best to bring to this piece the same kind of compassion I brought to the very moments I’ll describe. It won’t sound like I’m being very compassionate during some of it—trust me, there are very important reasons for everything we did during them, and very little of what we did wasn’t well thought out in advance and deliberate. When an old building is imploded, exceptional planning and very exacting techniques are deployed to minimize unwanted fall out, to contain the debris field. That’s not a bad metaphor for doing death notifications. We often (and typically) detonated lives in fulfilling our responsibilities, so we did this under as much control as possible to contain things. As you’ll see.
Here’s how the job was set up. When you were on the clock, you were so for a 24 hour period. During that time you’d have a pager (sorry—this was in 1989-90) and a police radio at hand. At any point during that 24 hours, the pager could go off summoning you to somewhere in the city to tackle God only knew what sort of human mess. At the end of the shift you’d meet the next interventionist on call and hand the gear off. There was nothing better than handing it off with a smile after 24 quiet hours. If you were the receiver of the gear from someone who’d just dodged the bullet, you cursed under your breath, your sense of fate now darkened by their quiet shift.
As much as your shift covered both portions of a day, sun up and down, does it come as any surprise that 95% of the times I was called was in the dark of night? Yup. It’s obviously the case that it is in darkness that our dark natures come out and wreak their havoc.
That means, dear reader, that most of the time when the pager went off, I was in bed and asleep. You want to talk about an alarm clock…
The pager would go off and wake me up. I’d jump from bed and into the set of clothes I’d set out (my just in case outfit). I’d call the number of the police station indicated where they’d provide me whatever intel they had (always never enough, always relayed in that bored, can’t-be-bothered tone that characterizes how cops talk to each other), including of course the address of the scene. I’d get in my car and begin to make my way through the now decidedly dark night. If I was smart I’d have on hand a pack of cigarettes; if I didn’t but remembered, I’d stop along the way to grab one. You’ll understand shortly.
I’d arrive to my destination, typically denoted by the police cruiser sitting somewhere nearby (cops always accompanied you for security on these missions). We’d introduce ourselves and confirm which house or apartment it was, but not a lot of other dialogue took place. I know the cops appreciated we interventionists covering an egregious task that normally fell to them. I know they also appreciated the hell out of that moment when we determined the situation was under control and they could at last leave. Cops know only too well death and tragedy, and spend a lot of time in their presence. Which isn’t to say they’re not still human and ever mind getting the hell away from someone else’s tragedy.
It’s go time so we approach the door and ring the bell. Being the hour it is, it usually takes some time for a person to show up to answer. They often and naturally ask, “Who is it?” before opening the door. With the sound of that voice, the abstract notion of the person who will soon be described as “survived by” takes on human form, and I feel a small pang for knowing, your world is about to change dramatically, my friend. “Denver Police Department, ma’am.” The door cracks open, they look me over, take in the confirming sight of the cop behind me, and open the door further still.
“Are you Mrs. Benson, ma’am?” She nods. “Mrs. Benson, there’s been a medical emergency in your family. May we come in to discuss this with you?” So factual, so ambiguous, all very deliberately scripted to optimally manage what is about to happen.
She lets us in and looks searchingly at us for an explanation, clutching at her bathrobe. I hate having to delay this but it’s necessary that I do.
“Ma’am, I’m Matt McWright from the Denver Police Department. This is Officer Thompson. Mrs. Benson, is there anyone else home who should perhaps be involved in our discussion?” I know her mind must be screaming, “Our discussion about WHAT??” but already the person knows this can’t be good, likely knows that anyone else at home will be involved, perhaps intuits she’s going to need their support anyway, and goes off to get them. As a muffled dialogue happens somewhere in the background, the cop and I take the time to look around and size up these people by how they live. All potentially useful information.
She’s back, her equally disheveled and concerned-looking husband in tow. He doesn’t beat around the bush, appears almost angry. “What’s going on?” he demands.
For reasons of subtly reinforcing who is in charge here, and so as to avoid a collapse that could cause injury (trust me, it’s happened), I delay things for the last time by asking that we sit down.
Seated, I speak, and say this:
“Mr. and Mrs. Benson, I’m sorry to report that your son was involved in a car accident earlier tonight out on route 70 near Golden. He died from his injuries there.”
Stop, reader—don’t go there! Do as I do, stay with me. We are NOT out on that highway surveying that wreckage. Honestly? It means nothing to us. We are here, and here is where that clinical mindset not just “comes in handy” but is in fact crucial to everything we’ll do at this point.
To be clear, well though I am intimately involved in this couples’ lives at this moment, in this place and at this hour, well though I have learned a great deal about them just for having entered their home, looked around and taken in what they own, what they prize, how they live, the clinical mindset allows me to remain at a crucial remove from the three-dimensional truth of their human existence, including and most especially the harrowing loss they are right now suffering. They are not my people, their son is not my relative or friend, their loss is not my loss. Though they wouldn’t guess it given the slightly sorrowful, slightly sympathetic look on my face just now, they are not even really people to me, as in people I could get to know and perhaps even grow close to in another life. No. I am here in a professional capacity, my job is to attend to their clinical needs at this point. In other words, they are patients to me, clients, if you prefer. To go even further (since it was my words that set this situation in motion), they are subjects, even, to me, in a harsh experiment, my interest in them being focused altogether on their behaviors now, and not at all on the awful, compelling reality that brought us all together this night.
We are here, sitting across from the Bensons, who have just now learned about the savage loss of their son. All has been preamble to this moment, when our work now truly begins. We wait, looking closely at them.
Can you believe it? I’m actually going to cliff hanger you here, in the interests of not packing a novel into this post. I’ll talk about all of what happens next in Part II. And just so you know, I will end this story talking about how not only were these my most intense professional experiences, but were also some of the most beautiful life experiences I’ve ever had. You’ll also hear about how I was a victim of (something of) a crime during this year, and how that played out.