spring morning, I got a callout to go to the scene of a rural house
fire to assist the son and daughter-in-law of the woman who lived in
the house and who died in the fire.
I spent hours
on-scene with son Fran and his wife. When the fire was totally out,
Fran's mother was put in a body bag, removed from the house and placed
on the lawn, awaiting the arrival of the funeral director for transport
to the medical examiner's office for autopsy.
One of my
primary responsibilities as a Sudden Death Trauma Specialist™
is to view bodies in order to answer families' questions about the
condition of the body or to prepare them to view their loved one if
they ask to do so. I walked over to the body bag, a state trooper
unzipped it, pulled the sides open and I looked at Fran's mother's
body. She had been very badly burned.
sudden, unexpected death provides no transition whatsoever
from a live beloved person to a
dead beloved person, most victim-survivors have an almost obsessive
need for information, which takes the place of transition. This need is
a natural, normal and involuntary phenomenon of sudden, unexpected
death. Generally, the most compelling and urgent need that families
express is to view the body in its natural state, before it has been
prepared by a funeral director, when families sometimes feel that their
person doesn't "belong" to them anymore. They want to see their person
immediately, in order to see the proof of death for themselves. And
also to hold them, caress them, kiss them.
experience, most well-intended people advise the family against viewing
a badly traumatized body, telling the family that this shouldn't be
their last memory of their person and that they should remember them
the way they were. And they would be wrong. Generally, by giving that
uninformed advice, they have unintentionally created a situation that
can result in the survivors looking forever to say goodbye.
most therapeutic event of all our death rituals is viewing the body -
no matter the condition of the body.
applies to adults only. However, there is a vital caveat to this
statement. In order not to cause secondary trauma, I have devised a
specific, five-step procedure which must be meticulously followed.
Otherwise, viewing a severely damaged body can re-traumatize the
survivors and cause eidetic
memories, which are visual
memories that are intrusive, unwelcome and unbidden and will evoke
emotions similar to those they felt when experiencing the actual event.
I have named
Death Memory Rectification™
components are present and the process is followed correctly, they will
have seen the proof before their very eyes, but the sight of their
loved one will begin to fade and eventually will revert to the way the
person looked before they died. DMR™
often begins in 48 hours and can take up to two years to complete.
critical components to DMR™
1. It must be
a sudden, unexpected death. DMR™
does not apply to expected death.
viewers must love their person and have a history of memories with them.
person must want to see their dead family member. They should never be
forced or coerced into the viewing.
4. They must be incrementally
great detail for what they are going to see (general, specific,
5. Their reaction should not be
inhibited, unless it's clear they're going to hurt themselves or
If the family is on-scene, the
place at the scene. If not, they usually view their loved one in a
hospital emergency department, the funeral home or, less frequently, at
the medical examiner's office.
Fran wanted to see his mother.
When I am preparing someone to view
traumatized body of someone they love, I do it incrementally, using
what I call the funnel method. I
begin with a general
I told Fran that his mother had been very badly burned. I did not use
the word body - to
Fran, this was his mother, not a body. He said "I don't care. I want to
I then get more specific.
your mother has been so badly burned, she's not recognizable as a human
being. He forcefully said "I still want to see her!"
The last step in the funnel method
is to get graphic.
I told Fran that the only thing that was left of his mother was her
torso, which had split open and he would see her internal organs. He
softly said "I just want to see her".
I explained to him that the last
his mother would begin to fade and eventually that memory would revert
back to the way she looked before she died. You see, I did not know her
and I, therefore, have no history of memories with her for my mind to
revert to, so I remember the way she looked. But Fran would
see the person who read him bedtime stories when he was a child. He
would see the one who snuggled him when he was sick. He would look at
the person who made his birthday cakes - the dear mother who had adored
her little boy - and her big boy.
The firefighters and law
officers had worked on scenes with me long enough to know what was
coming, so they respectfully moved away from the body bag so Fran could
have privacy. I walked with him over to his mother, re-opened the bag
and stood close to him for a few moments as he looked down at his dead
mother for the first time. I then stepped away - with a huge lump in my
throat - as he knelt down close to her and sobbed - huge, heaving sobs.
I never hurry the family in these
circumstances because they often feel a compelling need to stare at
their beloved person over and over in order to try to assimilate that
they will never again see this person alive. Fran stayed near his
mother for about half an hour, then unsteadily got to his feet. I
walked over to him and embraced him.
He wanted to stay near his mom, so
beside her as she was carried across the lawn and placed in the hearse.
Fran leaned down and picked up some apple blossoms that had drifted
from the apple tree on the edge of the lawn. He sprinkled them on his
mom's body bag, stood there for a few moments, then gently closed the
back door of the hearse.
I will never forget the sight of
that sunny day with a brilliant blue sky, standing in the middle of
that dirt road, tears streaming down his face, as he watched his mother
being driven away from her home for the last time.