When the Bodies Start Piling Up


I wrote this post about two months ago, but I had a really difficult call yesterday, so it seems appropriate to post it now.

Volunteering for Victim Services is really rewarding, but it’s also really hard.

I’ve written about some of the difficult calls before. However, I think the real struggle is that in recent months, I’ve been on two child death calls, a death notification where a young guy was hit and killed by a train, two drug overdoses – one of which was likely a suicide, one DOA with a lot of HIV positive blood throughout the house, two strangulations, at least four calls where the victim had visible, gruesome wounds, and a death notification for a hiker from out of town.

The bodies start to weigh you down.

Add to that the fact that I work for a hospice and have to do death notifications to volunteers on a near-daily basis, and the pressure I was under studying for the LSAT… and it’s a perfect storm of sadness and stress.

I’m not gonna lie. I started feeling pretty messed up after the hiker death notification. He and his family were from out of town, and were in Tucson because they were attending a funeral. And he died. 150 yds from his vehicle. We did the notification for his wife, who was trying so hard to be kind to everyone in the room, but she was clearly in shock. She repeated the same questions over and over again. She kept blowing her nose into a bandanna, and she was trying to take care of everyone around her. There were seven other family members there, and we worked briefly with all of them.

I went home and honestly just couldn’t get back into my life. Before we left, the deceased’s wife said to me, “God is good.”

That’s such a difficult thing to say even in the best of circumstances, because life is horrible and unrelenting. This temporary home of ours really, truly sucks. But within an hour of being told that she’s never going to have another conversation with her husband… never going to hold his hand, argue, or laugh with him again. Within the hour, she said, “God is good.”

And as weird as it is, the fact that she said that effed me up a little bit.

I got up the next morning and listened to a sermon while making breakfast, and, of course, the pastor talked about the story behind the song that says, “It is well with my soul.” It’s a great story, and you should look it up if you haven’t heard about it before… and yet, even having known the story for years, it was as if God was chasing me around with the peace Christians are supposed to feel no matter what. No matter who or what God takes from us, we are supposed to say, “God is good,” and, “It is well with my soul.”

It wasn’t well with my soul.

I could feel the weight of every dead body from the past few months. They were all laying on my chest, restricting the flow of oxygen to my brain.

So what did I do?

I went for a run. Then I went for a walk. Then I drank some wine. Then I did some yoga. Then I wrote. Then, I decided to hell with all of the things nobody would judge me for doing as coping mechanisms… I turned off all of the lights in the house, made a spread for myself on the floor, and pulled out my VHS tape of THE PATRIOT. I popped it in my tape player and spent three straight hours sobbing.

Then I brushed my teeth and went to bed.

Such is the way to set aside the dead bodies and pick up the peace of Christ. God is good. I genuinely hate this place where we live, but God is good.

UPDATE: Yesterday’s call hasn’t sunk into me yet. I know it will. I know it will haunt me for the next few weeks, until it’s replaced with another haunting call.

Yesterday’s call started just before 5:30 am, and didn’t end until 7 pm or so. Then, there was paperwork to do, and I had to return my radio and phone to our office, so I was away from home for something like 16 hours, going non-stop.

During the call, I wasn’t able to eat at all or have any break. Also, because our shift wasn’t supposed to start until 6:00, I hadn’t eaten breakfast or showered or anything. I had gotten up and gone.

The call spanned two different hospitals, a crime scene, and a home. I interacted with tons of people, ranging from the victim and people directly or indirectly related to the crime, hospital staff and people directly or indirectly related to the patient’s medical care, and even a few people at Southwest Airlines. We transported people from a hospital to the crime scene and back, from one hospital to another, and from the second hospital to a home.

Our victim was really, really visibly wounded, which is always difficult to see. She had visible wounds all over her body, and her face was swollen into a misshapen, bruised mess. And she was SUCH a nice girl. Under different circumstances, I could see myself being friends with her. She is nerdy and artsy. She loves steampunk and movies. She hasn’t given up on her dreams yet, like so many people have. She is an extraordinary person, who doesn’t deserve what happened to her – no victim does.

Labor Day Weekend


This has been an excellent weekend so far. Mostly, that’s because I’ve remembered how to sleep the day away.

This weekend started for me with my first strangulation call. The call came in at 0100, and it was a request for my partner and me to relieve the unit before us, who had been on the call already for about six hours. Strangulations can be like that because they require a forensic nurse, and forensic nurses don’t just hang out at the ER. They aren’t the most common of nurses, and they sometimes have other things they have to do, so we were looking at the nurse being available around 1000. One of the primary reasons this sucks is because if a victim leaves the hospital and comes back when the nurse is available, there’s a decent likelihood that she’s going to be charged for 2 different ER visits.

In addition to the normal frustrations that come with having to wait 19 hours (and probably more, because there was also a sexual assault at the hospital waiting to be seen by the forensic nurse)… in addition to the frustration of waiting for 19+ hours, our victim hadn’t eaten, had been dragged through a wash without being able to shower, had an enormous bulge on her forehead where she’d been hit in the face with a gun, was bruised and scratched all over, and she needed to be ready to move into a shelter if the judge released the guy that morning or if someone paid his bond and he got out. Additionally, our victim had been regularly branded in private areas, so I’m sure she had some pain that she wasn’t even talking about.

When we got there, our victim and the other two advocates were all slouched into uncomfy waiting room chairs. They looked exhausted. Luckily, my partner was actually a staff advocate and thus knows how to get things for people, so she managed to get us into the quiet room (it’s a special room usually reserved for sexual assault victims, although I’ve also seen it used for families there for child death cases). My partner sent me to get food for our victim. The hospital actually has a fridge with food boxes in it that can be given to victims for free. We went ahead and filled out some paperwork to try to get $ for our victim to help pay for medical bills, travel expenses to and from court, and counseling.

Our victim was really talkative, but she was all about joking. She was laughing and saying silly things. She was glad that my partner and I both have some fat on us, because the advocates we’d relieved were both skinny. It’s the first time I’ve been with a victim who wanted to make light of everything. She said the other two advocates were too serious and she was glad we could laugh with her.

After about an hour and a half, our victim was finally given a bed, and they hooked her up to some monitors and gave her a hospital gown. A couple of hours later, we left her, hoping she’d rest. That was about 4:30 am.

I went home and slept for an hour or so, then I had to return my gear so the next shift could have it, and I will almost certainly never find out what happened to our victim. She may go back to her guy. She may move out of state. She may go back to using drugs. She may go to college. She may find a great guy to marry her and help her take care of her daughter. Her guy may be released with no bond, and he may kill her. Believe it or not, that’s not an unlikely outcome. This victim had a higher lethality risk than any I’ve seen. We always do a lethality assessment with intimate partner domestic violence victims. Victim advocacy requires a comfort with not knowing the outcome.

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And then, I went home and slept. I slept off and on until 4:00 pm. It was glorious. I almost never have time to sleep after shifts like that.

Then, I got up, watched a series of lectures on Hitler, walked Moose, went for a run, ate dinner… and then I watched The Mighty Ducks and D2: The Mighty Ducks. It was a really nice recovery from the night before.

Now, I’m drinking coffee and writing. I’m loving that the air smells like Fall, even though it’s still 100 degrees out, and even though there are some terrible things that happen in this world, and in all likelihood, there are terrible things happening to someone in my city right now, I’m having a good weekend.

 

The Death of a Child, and My City


I met up with the two advocates I was going to be shadowing and the three of us made up Crisis Unit Adam 1. There was also a second group of three who made up Crisis Unit Adam 2, and the six of us went to a restaurant to await calls… or not.

I was a little afraid that we wouldn’t get a call, but then I felt guilty, as if I wanted someone to be a victim. Of course I didn’t want that; I just wanted an opportunity to see what I’d signed up to do. The other advocates assuaged my guilt by saying that there are always victims, whether the Victim Services teams are called or not, so wanting a call isn’t about wanting someone to be victimized; it’s about wanting victims to have support.

About five minutes into dinner, the call came. We were to relieve Baker unit on a DOA call (Deceased on Arrival) with a child victim.

There was a weight that came with going to a child’s death that was palpable, but mingled with a sense of, “This is what we do.”

We ate quickly, and the other advocates tried to prepare me. They let me know that I should feel free to step out if it was too difficult. They said that my well-being was a priority… and we hit the road.

When we arrived, we talked to the Baker Unit, who gave us the background on how the child passed away and some of the family dynamics, of which there were a ton – divorce and estrangement, medical issues, grandparents on both sides, and previous recent family deaths. I’m not sure how much I’m allowed to share, so I’m going to keep the details to myself, but I will tell you that, although the child’s death was unexpected, the cause did not seem to be homicide. Law enforcement procedurally treats all children’s deaths like homicides, but this particular death was most probably due to illness.

So… we couldn’t talk to the child’s dad, who was being interviewed by law enforcement. We couldn’t talk to mom, because of some crazy, crazy circumstances. We couldn’t talk to mom’s parents, because they left about the same time we arrived. Therefore, we went in and talked with the extended family on dad’s side.

There were probably 15-20 people there who said they were cousins. We introduced ourselves: “Hi. My name is Betsey. This is Claire and Katie. We’re with Victim Services, and we’re here to be of help to you. Our entire purpose in being here is to help you with whatever you need.”

Crickets.

You would think there would be tears. You would think the room would be filled with pandemonium. A child died. I had never met the child, and I felt pretty stirred up.

The family, however, was almost completely unemotional. It was odd. In discussing the call after-the-fact, one of the advocates pointed out that she thought the family probably distrusts law enforcement and also distrusted us. Although we aren’t with law enforcement, we look pretty official. I was just wearing normal clothes, but the other two had polos with badges sewn into them. They had ID card things, plus law enforcement took us into the room with the family and helped with the introduction, so it makes a lot of sense that people who don’t trust cops would want nothing to do with us. They politely, but coldly told us that they didn’t need anything, so we said we’d step into another room and just be there if they needed us.

And we waited.

And waited and waited.

Standing in a tiny, stuffy room for something like two hours. We interacted a bit with a hospital social worker whose primary task was to get hand prints of the child to later present to the family. I saw the person from the medical examiner’s office, who was there with a camera and stood around the corner from us, just outside the room with the body in it. There were two police officers sitting guard over the body. One of the family members came out and asked us if the family would be able to see the body one last time, but we didn’t know the answer. Evidently, the medical examiner can and sometimes does refused to let families see a body.

And that was the extent of what we did for two (maybe even three) hours.

Then, the detectives let us know they were done interviewing dad, and we could talk to him. We went out and talked to him, and he was also utterly unemotional. He was worried about his cell phone, because the detectives had kept it. Another family member stepped in and politely asked us if we could just give them our card and go, which we did.

It wasn’t what I expected. I’m not sure what I expected, and I can empathize with the unemotive response. It’s a lot to process, but the lack of chaos and (for lack of a better word) drama was something the other advocates kept coming back to. They thought it was pretty unusual.

And all I can really think about is how much I want to go on more calls. I don’t think we made much of any difference to this particular family, but I can definitely see how it might make a difference to someone else.

All night, we listened to the police radio. There were people doing crazy things… a lady who was hysterical because she couldn’t remember where she’d parked her car, a guy with a machete, a drug deal going down at the Redbox, another DOA that Crisis 2 attended, and a major incident with a guy with a gun at an apartment complex. I think all of those things stuck with me more than the call in which I participated, because that’s what my city is like. When I’m not receiving training in Victimology and Victim Services, those things are all going on, unbeknownst to me. They are occurring at locations I frequent. They are always occurring.

Right at the moment, I feel like I’m doing the right thing with my life. I feel like this could be my niche. Who knows how long it will last, or if I’ll even make it through training, but for now, I feel like I’ve found my element.