To all the parents I have had to meet,
One of the hardest moments of my job in the Coroner’s office was having to meet you during the worst day of your life. It was the day your world stopped spinning and ceased to exist as you knew it. The day that marked the start of a painfully long and unwanted chapter. The day that the beautiful child you brought in to this world was undeservingly taken out of it. It was a day that I have unfortunately witnessed far too many times. A day that never gets easier for me to be a part of. A day that I desperately wish you never had to live. A day that I thought and felt all of the things I am telling you now.
Mothers, I heard the deep, primal sounding cries bellowing out of you as you sprawled over the precious child you just lost, soaking them with your tears. This sound pierces my heart and steals space from my soul. Each time I hear it, I pray it will be the last. Fathers, I witnessed you shake and sob and punch holes through walls, then beg me to let you take your son or daughter home. I cringe when I remember the sound of you pleading to rewind from here, to set the clock back a day and start all over again. My heart breaks as I think back on these moments, but there are a few things I want you to know…
I want you to know that I care. Then and now. I care so deeply about you and your child. I cared about all of the details you needed me to know about your child on that day. I took in every bit of the information you gave to me, because you knew them best, and I made sure to use it. This is not just a job to me and the day I met you was certainly not just “another day at the office”. I want you to know that I did everything in my power to make sure your child had what they needed. I would have stayed in the office for any length of time so that you could sit with them as long as you wanted. I want you to know that I tried to anticipate your needs and help you with anything I possibly could.
I want you to know that you didn’t have to worry about them after you planted that final kiss on their tender cheek and walked out of my door. I know you did, and probably still do, anyway, because that’s what parents do. But I hope you can worry a little less with the knowledge I was here, with a heavy heart, gently caring for them. I want you to see that I tenderly wrapped your young child in a blanket so they’d be comfortable, and that I always left the lights on in case they were afraid of the dark. I want you to know that I paused and took a moment to grieve over the days and milestones your teen almost made it to but would never get to experience. I want you to know that even though you could not be here to walk out those final steps for them, I did everything in my power to do it as well as you would.
I am completely aware of the fact that I am not you. I could never know how you feel or what you have experienced. I know that nothing would have truly helped you through this day. But I hope that you could find some small comfort in the fact that I was here, guiding your child through those last crucial steps in the same way would for my own. I want you to know that I took care to do everything properly and did my best to avoid making any mistakes. I want you to know that I fought with all that I had to get all of the answers you deserved. If justice was needed, I did everything in my power to ensure it was served.
I am horribly and truly saddened that we had to spend this day together. But I hope that in some small way, by some small measure, I played a part in the beginning of your long, restorative, healing journey. I want you to know that as that day ended, I sat at home, with tears streaming down my face, thinking of you. I want you to know that I have thought about you since that day, and I will continue think of you in the days and years ahead, because you and your beautiful child have a permanent place in my heart.
With so much love,
Deputy Coroner & Author of Spoiler Alert: You’re Gonna Die
(This letter was written for a few reasons. First and foremost, to the parents who have lost children. I just want them to know that there are people like me out here that deeply care for them and their children, especially in those final times. More importantly, I want them to know that people like me still care about and remember and grieve for them. Second, I know that in writing this, I speak for many coroners and other death investigators. The way we care for our families, whether they are children or adults, is a part of our job description as much as it is a part of who we are. You are the reason many of us come to work everyday and give our very best to the job. I wrote this in hopes that everyone becomes aware of what a coroner does. It is so much more than showing up to scenes and working on bodies. We are here for you, to find answers, comfort and assist in any way possible when it comes to the loss of your loved one. I hope that by coming to understand this, you can use us as a resource during your time of need, and that most importantly, you hold us accountable to do our jobs properly. We are here, we are available, and we want to help.)
We received this question: How often do you see patterns in death? For instance, two celebrities died this week at age 69, both of cancer. Considering the last celebrity to die at age 69 was over two years ago, two in one week stands out. Do causes of death, ages, given names, etc. tend to cluster?
David Bowie and Alan Rickman both passed away this week. Eerily, both were 69 and both died of cancer. Here are my thoughts: Deaths can happen in a cluster. There is a pretty widespread superstition that bad things, like death, happen in three’s. Though I am not one to really subscribe to these beliefs, I have experienced the same concept in my line of work. There have been multiple occasions where things will be really quiet at the office (because no one seems to be dying,) then suddenly one day the coolers begin filling up. In May of last year I had three heroin overdoses in one week. That many heroin related deaths is extremely unusual. Three in one week certainly stood out and prompted me to call the DEA. I also see an increase in related deaths when the weather shifts. As soon things get a little nippier around here, we experience an uptick in deaths. (They are usually respiratory related. Things like lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, etc.) Then, of course, there is the whole theory on suicide and that happening at particular times, which I cover in Spoiler Alert: You’re Gonna Die. So, yes, my answer is that death can tend to cluster or follow a pattern. However, there is usually a reason or a cause for the increase. As far as David Bowie and Alan Rickman are concerned, I’d say their deaths were just a coincidence. An odd and unfortunate one, at that. Though, I guess if I’m being honest, there is always the possibility that maybe, just maybe, death does happen in three’s. And if that’s the case… who’s next?
Thank you to everyone who has submitted questions! This blog wouldn’t be alive with you. With all the campaigning for this years election and interviews for the book, it’s nice to spend some time writing about what I know best; Death. Here are a couple questions we recently received.
-Why is a permit needed when spreading cremation ashes? What about for spreading them at sea?
I obviously don’t write the rules, so don’t take this answer as gospel truth. But, when it comes to the spreading of ashes, a permit is required simply because ‘they can’. I don’t know of any official reasons why it is required. Now, if you’ll stand by while I put my tongue in my cheek….I will say a lot of people dispose of ashes throughout the world, in various ways, and never ask permission. There are no cremains police running around arresting people. The position of almost every party involved is, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” I’d be absolutely shocked if anyone of authority interrupted the beautiful and emotional act of spreading your loved ones ashes to cite you. There is one Golden rule: Take the identifier out of the ashes! Don’t just dump them. There are identifiers (usually round metal tags) that are put in the cremains at the crematory. Though the risk is very minimal, if someone finds the identifier and decides to check on whether a permit was acquired, it can be traced back to you. Be careful and/or follow the rules.
Things are a little different when it comes to spreading ashes at sea. The law states that the cremains should be put in a permanent container designed to sink them to the bottom of the sea. It has something to do with the Clean Water Act. I am guessing they don’t want a bunch of loose ashes hanging out in the water. The permitting process would be helpful for you to discover all of the rules involved. For instance, you are supposed to be at least three nautical miles off the shore before dropping any cremains. You are also directed to determine the coordinates of where you have dropped them and report back to United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) within 30 days. This is understandable, as they would like to be aware of the points that permanent containers are being dropped in to the ocean. Again, though, I am quite certain many people spread ashes out in the sea without following these guidelines. It is really more a moral decision than anything else.
-How much time goes by before a body gets stiff?
Have any other questions? Throw them my way! Don’t forget to subscribe so you can be notified when the answers pop up.
(We received a question related to investigating a suicide by a person named Andy. Hey, Andy, if you’re seeing this, send a quick email to askacoroner.com so I can get back to you! Very intriguing stuff and I’d like to send you some thoughts I have.)