“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.”
Just the facts, and to the point. That is how you notify someone of the accidental death of their loved one.
She sits bolt upright at this with a sharp intake of breath, her hand rising to cover her mouth. Her eyes are wide and stare at the horror of what I just said before then filling with tears. Her hand begins to shake as the moan in her throat builds to an all out wail. Clinical me thinks: so far, so normal.
His reaction has my attention more. He’d sat on an ottoman when I asked that we do so. He’d seemed almost agitated when he first came out. His body position continued in that vein—leaning forward, elbows planted on his knees, hands clasped, eyes squinting at me as he strains to know what I know. When I tell them, he squints further still as his mind, I’m sure, quickly circles back around my words to confirm them. Then his mouth snaps shut and his head drops down, hanging between his shoulders, the gesture a perfect image of sudden defeat. He stays like that, unmoving, not making a sound. My thinking: what’s going on for him? And, where’s he going with this?
To look at this scene psychologically, as mentioned before when a person encounters devastating , unexpected news they are stripped of their defenses, all of them and all at once. I once heard the term “useful fictions” used to describe these. For example, when you get in your car, do you ever pause to consider the veritable slew of life threatening situations you are now about to put yourself in, even if your mission is to just go around the corner for a quart of milk? Of course you don’t—you probably wouldn’t leave the garage if you did (there would be no commercial air travel if our tendencies were always for this kind of reflection). Our ability to walk forward and function in life is flat out predicated on our unconscious ability to bend and warp our sense for the world such that we deny to ourselves all of its cliffs and sharp corners in order to do what we gotta do. More curious, frankly, than the fact that we do occasionally bump into one of reality’s painful truths (the sharp kitchen knife that does cut you; pulling into the next lane without looking does nearly get you sideswiped) is that we are at all surprised when that truth is suddenly revealed. My job in doing death notifications, after getting past the dirty work of the actual telling, is to be there in support of these people who are now psychologically raw and defenseless. They are fully exposed in this moment to the awesome proportions of how horrifyingly cruel life can be. Cruel in stealing from them something precious that was just a moment ago a safe and certain part of their lives; crueler still to now insist that they themselves must continue forward despite the loss—continue thinking, feeling…continue breathing, doing…continue living altogether.
She is now fully shaking in her sobbing, her face covered by her hands as she rocks back and forth, her cries intermingled with words like, “No!” and “This can’t be happening!,” while he continues to sit still, head still down, offering no sign for how he’s processing this. I permit myself a moment of feeling sorry for her; I even use her name in my thought (I’m so sorry, Mrs. Benson). He has me more concerned, however. I cast a glance at the cop who looks at me, the same question in the back of his eyes. What’s going on with this guy?
In most such situations, what plays out now is the rapid cycling of the well-known stages of grief, each stage of which has its predictable expressions:
- Shock/denial: “How can that be? He wasn’t going anywhere near route 70 tonight!”
- Anger: “Goddamit! He always drove like a goddamn madman!”
- Bargaining: “Are you sure it’s him? He left his wallet here earlier tonight, and there are a lot of Honda Civics out there. Might it be someone else?”
- Depression: which comes with no words, but in tears and silence.
And yes, astute reader, there’s also the final stage, acceptance, but that one is somewhere far up ahead in these peoples’ lives (we hope) and one that will not show its face here this night. Now, had I come to tell them their great Aunt Esther just died in Cleveland (which occasionally I had to do, since Esther had no other surviving family members and the authorities had no other way to convey this information), yes, acceptance did typically show up then, usually after a brief glance against shock (“Oh! Really? Well, she lived a long life.”).
You could say I didn’t do much during all such scenes, outwardly that is. After delivering the blow my job is to watch, gauge, anticipate, and do whatever small things I can that will channel the situation forward. I answer what questions I can, gently offer suggestions for what they might want to do (figure out when to contact this person or that, get in touch with the hospital where he’s been taken) and otherwise stay on the balls of my feet should the situation suddenly veer off for some reason (say, the older brother shows up drunk and furious and wants to jump on his parents’ shit for having let junior go out at all this night. Believe me, it happens.). Usually the party grows (word choice, I know) as those friends and relatives to whom they eventually reach out start to show up, and my job of assessing reactions and dynamics repeats itself.
This is the truth about grief in the aftermath of a tragedy: it is exhausting work. Our mortal nature often reveals itself in these situations by simply running out of steam, well though we could cry for five lifetimes for the magnitude of the tragedy. Across an intervention like this you’ll see grieving cycle up and down, the peaks diminishing with each pass. It’s often just a waiting game.
Once I feel confident the situation is under control, I release the cop (“Sorry for your loss, folks,” a quick nod and out the door). I then stick around based on what I read their needs to be and whether I continue to add value with my presence. I usually have to go over the basic information a few times, massaging these hard facts into their understanding—what we do and don’t know about the accident, what the process will be where the body at the hospital or morgue is concerned, what social services may pertain to them.
Sometimes, after a while, they want to tell me stories about the person. It seems to matter to them that he become more to me than just the regrettable statistic that prompted this crappy get together, more than just the dumb ass who managed to drive his car into a ravine. I’m good with this, the agenda to dignify him. I stay and listen. I smile when I’m supposed to.
And sometimes along the way what they need more than anything is just a cigarette, and for someone to stand by while they smoke it. There’s a flash of surprise, incredulity even, when I ask if they’d like one. You’d be surprised how many times the reaction was, “Yes. For fuck’s sake—yes!” I do what it takes, for as long as it takes, to see that these people make it safely through the harsh portal of the grief now at hand in their lives. That goal being met, I will give them back the privacy they deserve.
But sometimes they don’t want me to leave. I’ve come to represent the accident to them, have come to represent their loved one just before and still alive. My leaving thus becomes something of his leaving to them. I know this as I sense them eventually straining to find reason to keep me around. I am always moved by their sad resignation at that point when I gently tell them I must indeed go now.
But I haven’t left Mr. Benson just yet, no, no. Even just a few minutes after telling him the news, I know I’m probably going to be there for a while. For some people it takes a while for the wave of truth to break. I need to see the crashing of those emotions, and what happens after that, in order to determine that the situation is safe. Safe that they won’t proceed to break their hand punching walls, safe that they won’t hurt others by now methodically destroying the contents of their house. The crash of emotions is usually immediate, of course. Sometimes it can take hours.
I choose to check in with him, saying gently, “Mr. Benson, I’m so sorry for your loss.”
A pause, then he peers up at me from his hangdog position and says, “You know, that doesn’t help a damn bit.”
I briefly think, I might be angry too, but more I think about where this anger of his will need to go at this point. I begin to ask him a series of questions, all legit, but really intended to just draw him out. What questions do you have for me, sir? Is there somebody you’d like to contact at this point, or for me to? Do you have other children, other relatives nearby? Etc. His eyes redden, and eventually fill with tears as he bats away my questions with contempt. He knows why I’m here, he understands my questions, and he hates me to the core for the fact of their necessity. I get it, and still I ask them, drawing him out, until he is at last pacing the room in a soft rage, haranguing that dumb bastard of a son of his for being so fucking careless this night. I punctuate his anguished soliloquy with expressions of sympathy, his response to which is always the same: “That doesn’t help a damn bit.”
Eventually Mr. Benson tires too, his agitated grief thankfully never getting physical. Friends and relatives arrive, the collective grief briefly cycling up then down again with each reunion. I am not looking for anything in particular to tell me it’s okay to go now; eventually you just know.
I will circle back in the next 24 hours to see how they are doing. For now, I give them my card, gather my robe and scythe, and retreat back into the night from whence I came.