In my readings and traveling, I run into a lot of death-related stuff–some of it funny, much of it thankfully factual and reality based, lots of it just heartwrenching.
One of the heartening and surprising parts of being death-positive, and working to bring death–its reality, its inevitability–into polite society is getting to learn about and better understand all the facets and workers and places which come together in service of death. I’ve had the chance to meet so many extraordinary people who work in death and dying, and learn from their essays, tweets, and ideas! Today’s essay is one of those, a jewel of reassurance and compassion from an area of deathcare that I hadn’t ever (and hopefully won’t ever) have to consider.
Jacquie Purcell, a coroner in Illinois, and the co-author of Spoiler Alert: You’re Gonna Die, recently posted the following letter on her very interesting blog (Ask A Coroner).
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.)
While I hope foremost that you never have reason to need these reassurances, it warms my heart daily to know that so many good and compassionate people have found their calling working with and around death.