Sunday, August 28, 2005


I am playing a game of "rock, paper,scissors" with Mullet. "One...two...three...GO!" I say. I close my eyes and then open them again. I'm paper. He's scissors. Damn. "How about best three out of four?" I say. "No way," Mullet answers. "You lose." I collapse back in my chair and sigh. I look over at the three identification forms lying on the desk and the three Polaroids that accompany them. Double damn.

Last night three drunk teenagers who were driving home from a party got into a fatal car crash. The car was going 80 miles per hour on a dirt country road when the driver lost control and they rolled down a ditch into a water-filled ravine. All three died at the scene. This morning I get to accompany the grieving parents as they identify their childrens' bodies.

I grab the sheets and take a look at each photograph. The first is a young man. He's got a cut lip and a moderately gashed forehead, but otherwise he looks okay. I flip to the next. A girl this time. Long blond hair. Freckles. We took a profile shot because the right side of her face was so messed up. Most of her nose had been torn off, but we placed it back as best we could for the picture. The result is something far from perfect, but a good sight less traumatic than it could be. The last photo is of another girl. She's got curly brown hair. Her skull has been crushed so that she no longer has a forehead...just a void of abraded flesh and hair. Her head has been mostly severed from the stem of her neck. Before we took her picture we had to pull the sheet up just below her left ear to cover the devastating injury from view. The photograph purposefully cuts off just above her eyebrows.

They are truly horrible pictures, but it was the best we could do.

I hate this part of the job worse than anything. I'd rather swim in a pool full of spiders. As I walk down the hall toward the front office I think about how much worse it must have been back in the days when they had the family member identify the actual body...not just a photograph. There would be no trick angles or positioning of the sheet to cushion them from absorbing the full impact of what happened to their son...daughter...wife. Old Timers tell of how curtains were torn from walls...people fainted...screamed...attacked staff members in that overwhelming moment of pain.

I walk by the receptionist/transciptionist area and ask Chloe how the parents look. She is the one that buzzed back to the investigative section a few minutes ago informing us that they were here. Chloe looks grim. "They're holding it together. They're still in shock." I nod and continue through the heavy steel door that leads into the waiting area. I hear it slam and lock behind me.

There are several sets of brown leather couches and chairs surrounding a coffee table on the far side of the room. A four-foot tall ficus tree is near the window and another plant sits in the middle of the table. The whole civilized scene takes place atop a warm copper and rust area rug that covers the stark white tile floor.

My shoes echo across the room as I approach and five sets of eyes turn in my direction. One couple is huddled together on the couch that faces me. The husband has his hand on the wife's knee. She is not crying at the moment, but her swollen eyes and red nose belie her most recent bout of tears. These two people are the exact opposite in their carriage. The husband is slumped forward, almost crouching...his broad shoulders rounded in on themselves. The wife is stick straight in her seat with her knees clamped together in a way that reminds me of Miss America for some reason. He is wilted and broken while she is wound up tighter than a coiled spring.

The other couple is older. They sit on opposite ends of the other couch with a box of tissues between them. The man is blowing his nose and the woman is staring at the pattern on her skirt.

In a chairs sits another woman. She is blond and chubby. In her mid 40's. Alone. She looks like she is going to be sick. She is fingering the tattered tissue that is lying in her lap.

I am no good at doing identifications. I already feel the hot press of unshed tears behind my eyes as I finish my approach and introduce myself. "My name is Polly." (No "good morning" or "How are you?"...It's a terrible morning and this is probably the worst day of their lives.) "Are you the families of Greg, Joan and Tammy?" They nod. I continue with my frustratingly impotent speech. "First, I want you to know that I am so very sorry this has happened. (I refuse to say, "I'm sorry for your loss." I feel like that phrase is cliche to the point of being a mockery.) "I know this is a horrible day for you and I will try to get you through the identification process as quickly as possible." (I can't promise them anything more than quick efficiency. It will be painful and I won't lie about that.) "If there is anything you want to know about the accident I will be glad to give you all the information I have, but please wait until we are in the other room."

I ask for the parents of Tammy, the curly-haired brunette, to please follow me. The blond woman stands up on shaky legs and I guide her to a small box of a room with a desk and three chairs. As I open the door I ask Mrs. Tammy if she wants some water and she shakes her head "no".

I shut the door and turn to see Mrs. Tammy sitting in the chair at the desk. Both of her hands are lying palm-down in front of her and she is staring down at the wood grain surface. It's so quiet that you can hear the clock ticking up on the wall. Suddenly, her shoulders begin to shake and she starts weeping. I stand in the corner fighting back an overwhelming sense of helplessness. I cannot comfort this woman. Nothing I could possibly do would alleviate her pain. After a moment she says, "I'm sorry. It's just that she was all I had." Mrs. Tammy is struggling to regain her composure. "Don't you be sorry," I say, my voice cracking. "Take all the time you need. Would you like me to wait outside?" I am about to leave when she says, "No, no. I'll be okay. Let's just get this done."

I take the ID form and lay it out in front of her. I instruct her to fill it out all except signing the bottom. As she's writing, I look at the picture again. Oh, God. Tammy is the one whose forehead was crushed and who was mostly decapitated. This picture is pathetic. Why didn't Mrs. Tammy have somebody else come to make the ID as I'd suggested over the phone? Why do people insist on seeing their loved ones dead?

When she finishes filling out the form I lay the picture face-down on the desk. "Mrs. Tammy, I'm going to leave the room for a few minutes. When you feel ready, go ahead and look at the picture and then sign the form. Take as much time as you need." I warn her gently of the bruising on Tammy's cheek and of the gash by her left eye before I leave the room.

I stand outside and listen as Mrs. Tammy begins to softly cry and call out her daughter's name. I glance over at the two remaining couples who are listening as well.

An hour later I walk back into the investigative section. I am drained. I am devastated. I just want to go home.


Eleanor said...

Just like you, what is there that can be said?

Susan said...

Maybe they want to see their loved ones dead...for the closure, the finality. To know for certain...that's the only reason I can think of.

Nancy said...

I think that having you there for them, even if you feel impotent and don't feel eloquent... is powerful. That you care so deeply is, I'm sure, at least something.

Thor said...

thank you, polly, for your incredible sesitivity. none of the, "she didn't feel any pain," or, "i can imagine what you're going through..." you are an amazing person, and i'm sure the parents are greatful for your presence, even in a horrible time.

Kafaleni said...


Dave said...

how horrible you did the best Polly when something like that happens what can you really do to make them feel better.

Tamara said...

You're good, Polly.

k said...

polly is a star.

Higgy said...

Gut-wrenching - makes me want to kiss my desk and mutter "I love my job" over and over again...

motw said...

Why do they want to see their loved ones dead? How many times you've written of parents who talk to or sing to their deceased love ones, paying respect to the shell that once held a life.

Of all the times I've been with my family through sickness and health, for their joys and tears - I'd be there for death, too (how could I not?), although I would probably ask for my pastor to accompany me.

Jeff Meyerson said...

I'm just sorry this poor woman had to go through it alone.

It's easy to understand why a lot of cops and others who have to deal with violent death every day drink so much. It's a terrible thing to have to deal with once, let alone on a daily basis.

kibby F5 said...

After spending the weekend with F2 I couldn't, for a moment, imagine going through something like this.

I'd want to see her one last time. If only to remove all doubt? Or out of my respect for her? I think she'd appreciate it.