“Grief Counseling 101?

The following story is one of my more memorable experiences from earning my stripes as a grief counselor.

I’ve mentioned in other posts how difficult it is to train a person as a forensic death investigator. Protocols for investigating various types of deaths can be taught and reviewed repeatedly, but there is no more effective teaching tool in this line of work than practical application.

When it comes to grief counseling, the method of instruction is no different. Applying what is learned is made even more difficult when one considers the emotional element that one is faced with—something no amount of training can prepare a person to face.

The scene itself was in the backyard of a residence where a three-year-old child drowned in a hot tub. The hot tub had steps leading up to it and a 4? thick cover over it, but it appeared as though the child had no difficulty lifting the cover enough to fall inside.

After working the scene and collecting the body, it was time to visit with the family. The senior investigator I was with offered to stay in the car with the child while I stepped into the house to talk to the next of kin. At that point in my training, I had talked to several different families. On those occasions, I always had another investigator present, but I felt confident enough to solo at this point.

The officers at the scene indicated that the family was inside the house waiting to speak with me and led me to the front door. With a business card and a pamphlet on coping with child deaths in hand I entered the house to give my spiel. I walked in with a somber look on my face and my head bowed respectfully until I raised it to make eye contact. When I did, I found that I was surrounded by at least thirty crying family members stuffed into a living room the size of a parking space. I turned to ask the officer who the closest next of kin was, and I was immediately aware he had found himself in my position before. This time he remained outside.

I searched around briefly hoping someone would state that they were the father or mother, but no one did. My eyes were met with many different looks. Of those that did make eye contact with me, I got the impression that half of them expected me to tell them that the child was still alive, and the other half wanted to drown me in the hot tub for even being there.

I felt a slight choke in my throat and took evasive action from the emotion that I was beginning to feel. I picked the eldest woman in the room and knelt down before her. I introduced myself and told her why my office had gotten involved. I told her that the child was being taken to the medical examiner’s office and asked her if she had any questions.

Focusing on her alone allowed me to temporarily tune out all of the emotion around me. It also seemed to help her. When I addressed her directly, she too was able to focus on the matter at hand and set aside her grief momentarily. For all I know, she was the only person in the whole room that actually heard what I said. After talking to her directly, I was able to stand, look about the room, and include everyone else. Ignoring them entirely only moments before allowed me to take control and treat them with reverence. At the same time, I was able to remain as emotionally detached as a tour guide asking, “Does anyone have any questions??

I really don’t spend a whole lot of time thinking about how much better I am today at talking to grieving family members. When I do, my thoughts mostly focus on whether I have become proficient at dealing with families or if I’ve just simply become a coldhearted bastard. If nothing else, I’ve learned to maintain an emotionally stable balancing act between the two possibilities.


4 Responses to “”

  1. March 19, 2005 at 3:04 am

    Great site… came in from BE… I’ll be back! I especially love how you got into your work. Just curious… what did you do before?

  2. March 19, 2005 at 3:57 pm

    As a pastor who usually comes on the scene just after you’ve been there… I’ll just say that I thank you for just giving the facts, making yourself available for questions, and then getting out of there. While they are looking to you for the physical “why” questions at least you can give them something more comforting than I am often left with… “I don’t know. I just don’t know.”

  3. March 19, 2005 at 5:15 pm

    While I might not have nearly as difficult a job as you do, I can agree with you on how you learn to push out the grief yourself and concentrate on your job. If you try hard enough, after a while you can push down anything. I’ve heard that some people can even get medical procedures done and push down the pain without anaesteia.

    Games are for Children

  4. March 23, 2005 at 11:18 am

    Once again… I don’t think I could do that. When you first started did you get really emotionally involved?

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