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07/02/2006

The Death Message

You don't want to do it. Nobody does. You were called in. Not suitable for the radio. Nobody else can be expected to do it.

You sit down and read the text of the message. Dry words. Dry words with a great meaning. A life-changing meaning. The briefest details and a contact number. The barest indication of what has happened.

You drive to the road. Try to distract yourself by thinking about other things. Thank fuck it isn't a kid. The drive to the road is the slowest you've ever done it. Want to make sure you are fully prepared on the way. Think through all the scenarios. Hope they take it alright. What if they don't? What do I say? What do I actually say?

You pass the address and park up a little way down the street. More time to think. Get out the car. Straighten the tie. Put on the hat. Pick up the bit of paper. You hold the paper like a comfort blanket. The paper knows the truth. The paper will help you. Hat on or hat off?

You stand in front of the door for a few seconds longer than normal. How do you find out whether the person behind the door is who you want? Do you speak in the past tense straight away? First names? Mrs? Miss? Sir? Christ.

You see the curtain twitch. You flinch and ring the bell. It starts now. Time moves back to normal speed. What do you say? What do you say? What is...what WAS his name?

The door opens. You are looking down at the paper. The words swim around, mocking your feeble attempts at composure. Who is it? Who is this person at the door? How do you find out?

You stand and stare. (Don't say 'nothing to worry about!') A uniform stands on the doorstep. Her eyes scan across your face. Her raised eyebrows start to drop. The corners of her mouth, raised in welcome, shudder downwards, ever so slightly.

'Yes?'

What do you say? Can't ask someone to start identifying themselves on their own doorstep! Hat off. Hat OFF!. 'Can I come in?' Don't say her name. She will help you. She is there to help isn't she? Don't they say 'Is it about him? It is isn't it!'

Door swings open. The angel of death steps into the house. Quick glance around. She stands there staring. She knows. She knows. You want her to say it for you. Why won't she say it for you? What's the MATTER with her? Oh Jesus. Hope there's no kids. Can't cope if there's kids. Why didn't they send someone who doesn't have his own kids?

'What is it? Can I help at all?'

She isn't getting it. She really isn't getting it. Get her to sit down. No, it's her house! She needs to sit down. Take your hat off!

You blurt it out. You have some bad news. She needs to sit down. She doesn't sit down. She just stands there holding that bloody tea towel. She looks at you. Her eyes don't believe you exist. Her lips are moving but she doesn't speak. Screams hide behind her expression. NO NO NO. She knows. She bloody knows. Why won't she just say it? Her eyes. Her eyes cling to that last hope that none of this is real. You aren't really there. This isn't happening.

The spell breaks. She sits down. You notice you're in the front room. You tower over her. You sit near her. What do you say? What do you say now? This is the moment. What is it? Is he dead? Has there been an accident and he's dead? Has he passed away? Why won't she tell you the easiest way to do it?

HE'S DEAD (HE'S NOT COMING BACK) I'M VERY SORRY (YOU WILL NEVER SEE HIM AGAIN. HE'S DEAD. HE IS DEAD.)

She gets up and starts pacing around the room, wringing the towel between her reddening fists. She asks questions. All questions.

You can't answer. You are the angel of death. You are standing in the place of a loved one. Your presence is etched into her head for ever and ever. You can't bring him back. You want to. You really really want to.

What do you do now? You pass the scrap of paper with the contact number over. You offer tea, knowing she will refuse. You offer to drive her somewhere. She refuses.

You want to go. It feels like you have been there forever. She hasn't given her leave. What do you do now?

She suddenly shakes her head and apologises. You must be very busy officer. You are really very sorry. You are outside in the street again. You are sitting behind the wheel again. You drive away. You drive away out of her life.

14 comments:

Jurgen said...

It is never easy, but I have always been amazed by the gratitude and stoicism that this news is received. I take my hat off to all the widows and widowers out there that I have been the bearer of such bad news for. Not forgetting all the orphans to (no matter how old they are )I just hope that should it ever be my fate to have such news told me that I can behave in the dignified and respectful manner that all those that have gone before me have done.
That said surely dealing with the bereaved at the time of their bereavement shouldn't have to include filling a form and asking such searching questions relating to a pension or medication details...who in their right mind dreamt that up surely it could wait a day or two or even after the funeral.

Tom Reynolds said...

Yes.

As an A&E nurse I often had police sent round to places to let them know of a relatives death.

Hated it.

I had two police come to my door at 3am one morning - I nearly had a panic attack until they were able to explan that it was just my car that had been stolen. I let them know why I went as white as a sheet when I opened the door to them.

thinblueline said...

... lest not forget the family present sudden deaths .. where we sit and await withthte family for the various services to turn up and go away..

.. those few breif hours listing to a persons life as told from there loved ones..

Anonymous said...

Having been on the receiving end of a message like this, the very worst thing was the wait for the actual words. I remember the horror of it slowly dawning on me as I saw the car arriving and having enough time for the thoughts of the various members of my family it could be. Horrendous memory from thirty years ago.

My advice is to give the actual news as soon as feasible even if it may seem to be bordering on blunt.

Anonymous said...

Having been on the receiving end of a message like this, the very worst thing was the wait for the actual words. I remember the horror of it slowly dawning on me as I saw the car arriving and having enough time for the thoughts of the various members of my family it could be. Horrendous memory from thirty years ago.

My advice is to give the actual news as soon as feasible even if it may seem to be bordering on blunt.

gonorr said...

I have only had to do this once, and it wasn't nice. Kinder were only 6 monthes old and away with Mrs Gonorr at my mums. Couldnt beat around the bush and just sort of blurted out her old man was no longer with us. Not nice and not easy. Respect for anyone having to do this.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

What a horrific ordeal for all involved. Thanks for sharing this story.

Anonymous said...

a very moving account. when i'm tempted to think badly of (some of) the cops for some of their public order stunts i'll think of some of the other things u have to do too.

John said...

I had to do a few whilst Army police. Reactions seem to vary so much. Worst I recall was early morning after husband had been killed in hit and run accident in Belgium. Father Flat Hat and I went and knocked on door. Wife opened upstairs window and saw us. She knew both of us. She said, very quitely. "He'd dead isn't he?" We asked her to come down but she stayed at open window and just screamed the loudest human voice I have heard. She could not stop and we had to break in to get to her and calm her down.

Stan Still said...

@Jurgen

You are quite right, but unfortunately HM Coroner doesn't share your views and wants the sudden death report on the desk as soon as possible.

There are ways of doing it discreetly and without making it look like a form-filling exercise. Experience teaches you to know what questions need to be asked and they can be made to sound like normal conversation. The form can be filled in and any signatures obtained withou the relatives realising what has happened.

It's the worst job in the world, but one that can have an extremely positive effect on police/public relations when it is done properly.

Knight of NI said...

I was sent on a "Please allow" to get an elderly gent to phone the hospital. I had a telephone number for the ward where his wife was and little else in the way of information. I suspected his ailing wife had died, but knew nothing for sure.

The ward staff told him over the phone while we stood there. We were seething. How damn insensitive! To make matters worse, he didn't want any help from us, so we just expressed our sympathies and left.

He doesn't live in that flat anymore, it's now the home of a crack dealer's girlfriend. I hope he didn't die of a broken heart.

Rachel said...

That is absolutely heartbreaking. Thank you for posting that.

Paul Haden said...

Yes, one of the less pleasant jobs that has to be done 'because somebody has to do it'.

I agree that the best way is to come out with it without too much flannel.

I have been with other officers who couldn't bring themselves to say it and I've had to but in while they were wittering on, leaving the relative/s baffled as to what we wanted!

"Mrs Bloggs, Can I come in?" Get in. "It's about your husband Fred Bloggs (Just in case she's the wrong Mrs Bloggs!). I'm sorry but I have some very bad news ......

'Very bad news' lets her know what to expect before you actually say it, then you can lead into the (short) story about the crash, heart attack etc.

If Fred isn't dead, quite a good opener can be "Fred's asked us to come round and let you know he's in hospital.." provided you know that there is some chance of Fred having been able to mumble something. It lets them know straight off that he's not dead (yet anyway) and may delay hysterics long enough to let you tell them what they need to do next.

Think about doing this job next time you want to moan about the Police!

Anonymous said...

Don't the police fore have some kind of procedure for this situation along with training in a simulated construction.

I would have thought anyone with half a brain would have sorted out
how they would handle the situation from start to end if there were no official training and
no police procedure provided.

Are you really in the police force or do you just make this shit up.

If you are in the force do you get paid more than the minimum wage?

Was there any point to this blog entry or have you got nothing better to do with your time?