Interpreter turned psychologist - navigating a difficult situation
April 12, 2014 1:48 PM   Subscribe

On Tuesday, a Japanese acquaintance from my first exchange to Tokyo in 2009/10 suddenly messaged me saying she needed someone to interpret for a Japanese lady whose son had suddenly passed away in Germany. I said okay and now I've just come home after two exhausting days and sorting through the apartment of a young man who probably committed suicide. I will have to go back there on Monday, but I'd like some tips on how to deal myself and also on how to help the mother.

I agreed to do the job before I knew any details, and warned them that I wasn't a proper interpreter. My Japanese is enough to deal with all the problems that arise, but the emotional aspects of the job are... not easy.

Let me start at the beginning. (I am unsure if I should be giving all these details, but the case isn't in the papers and you surely don't know any of the involved persons, but the details are important to understand and help.) I took the rapid train from Berlin to the town the death occurred in yesterday morning (after getting up at 3.30 am and going to bed late because I had so much to prepare) and met the poor mother and her friend who accompagnied her for moral support. We drove to the consulate where they told us we could get the key to the son's apartment from the police, so we went there next.
The son was only 32 when he died. He tried to make it as a musician, but his mother said he had been used by a British famous musician who kept promising to make him big in the business, but only ever took money from him and stole his songs. (I could not verify any transactions on is bank statements, but he did sometimes send large sums of money to an unknown person or company.) He had cut off ties with his (divorced) parents, but asked for money once in a while. His death was only discovered about two months after he had died, and the police strongly discouraged the mother from seeing her son one last time. (How bad would it be if she insisted on it anyway? Would he still be recognizable?) They also told they could not reliably verify the source of his death anymore, but he was found lying on his sofa bed.
The nice landlady will take care of unpaid bills etc. for us and send a total amount the son or now the mother owe her when she is done. She will also have a company take care of his room.
The room was extremely untidy when we went inside today. The mother located his missing passport (so all procedures such as cremating him can now be done, I have taken care of most of that already) and... a rope. With a loop already made. Apparently he could not use that to hang himself because there was no place to do so in his apartment. We could now, however, find anything like sleeping pills or whatever else he could have used, so that part if a mystery.

I am really glad that I can help at least a little, although of course I wish something this sad thing would not have happened in the first place. The mother kept blaming herself today (and the estranged father), so I decided to tell her how I wanted to kill myself when I was in Japan last year (see previous questions.) I told her whatever happened was not her fault, depression was an illness (the landlady mentioned he seemed unwell) and not something she could have prevented. She thanked me for it and said that surely there was a reason why I was the one who ended up being the interpreter for this case.
This whole case got me thinking just how close I got last year. This young man had the same books I have on my bookshelf or in my to-read-list. He had a similar history to mine in younger years, being a smart(-ass) kid and bullied for it. It could have been my parents in Tokyo last year, cleaning up my apartment and wondering what they did wrong. It could have been me.

I have to go back there on Monday and help organise his cremation and some other things, and I want to be strong enough help as much as I can. The whole thing is exhausting, though, mentally and also physically. I have a hotel room with a bath tub (which was very nice yesterday) and that helps a little, but I think I'll need more. I almost had a nervous breakdown on the train back home earlier today.

Sorry for rambling - I guess what I want to ask is: Has anyone any tips on how to be a great help while staying sane themselves?

(Also, aren't some of the things I am doing the consulate's job?)
posted by LoonyLovegood to Human Relations (15 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I'm sure you'll get lots of helpful answers on this. To cover the basics: Get plenty of sleep. Eat good, balanced, regular meals. Get some exercise - if you don't have workout clothes in Berlin then just take walks. Avoid drinking too much, it can intensify depression.

Maintain contact with your friends and family via email or phone. If you know people in Berlin, make an effort to connect with them. If you don't, then go to a coffee shop or bar (careful with the booze) so you can interact with people who aren't part of this crazy sad business you are dealing with.
posted by bunderful at 2:03 PM on April 12, 2014

Best answer: It sounds like you have been an amazing help so far. I wonder whether the next step would be to try and find someone with counselling skills to help the mother. Even if you still had to be an interpreter, you would know she was getting professional help. Make sure you look after yourself too - it must be traumatic seeing a sort of mirror of how your life could have gone. Is there someone you are comfortable talking about this to IRL?
posted by Dorothea_in_Rome at 2:05 PM on April 12, 2014 [2 favorites]

Best answer: (How bad would it be if she insisted on it anyway? Would he still be recognizable?)

No, no, a thousands times no. I understand you have no control over what is ultimately her decision, but two months is well into decomp (sorry) and she absolutely does not want to see what is left of her son in that state. Discourage her by any means possible.
posted by DarlingBri at 2:12 PM on April 12, 2014 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Thank you! To clarify, I live in Berlin, but the thing happened in another city about two hours away. I called my boyfriend yesterday and today after leaving the apartment of the deceased, and my mother just warmed up today's lunch for me after I got home. (I don't drink, and I didn't have any free time at all yesterday with the two ladies in tow, except for at night before I went to bed.)
I walked a LOT the last two days and don't have the energy for exercising, but I guess I can manage sleep. (I'm still up because I'm a bit afraid of going to bed before being really ready to fall asleep quickly.)
We have discouraged the mother from seeing the body, but she wants to at least see it in the body bag before it gets cremated...
The mother will go home to Japan on Wednesday, so I can't really find her a therapist here, but I will suggest it to her friend who came along with her. Thank you!
Oh, I will also talk about this with my therapist next week!
posted by LoonyLovegood at 2:12 PM on April 12, 2014

Best answer: This situation sounds like it is above your pay grade. (This is a euphemism I'm using to mean that this is far too emotionally complicated for you to be participating in. You are asking the right questions, but really, these folks should be relying on professionals. You're a saint to do this, but you are NOT qualified. Are we clear? OK, then I'll move on...)

I can suggest you call a suicide hotline for tips and support navigating this thing through to the end. You should call anyway because it is clear you, personally, need support in order to be supportive to this family.

Also, it is OK if you back out of the job. No one would blame you.

You do still need to call a grief or suicide type hotline for support for yourself. I would classify what you've just been through as "emotional trauma," fwiw.

Best of luck.
posted by jbenben at 2:12 PM on April 12, 2014 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Death and sorrow are exhausting. Mostly you need to know that you can't fix this and that's ok. Don't try and relieve her sorrow, it's ok for her to be a mess. Just listen and be there. I have mixed feelings about viewing her son. I have seen many decomposed bodies and it isn't nice, but I think I would want to see my own child no matter what, but I have never lost someone like this and there is really no way to know what is right for this woman.
For yourself I would really recommend writing, just whatever you are thinking, try to do it for at least an hour so that you might get to those thoughts you first try and avoid.
posted by InkaLomax at 2:17 PM on April 12, 2014

Best answer: This whole case got me thinking just how close I got last year. ... It could have been me.

But it wasn't. Don't go down this road. You're home and you're doing OK. He's not you.

I think you've done more than enough for the mother. You agreed to interpret, not to provide moral support.

You use the word "job" but are you getting paid to do this? I mean, aside from the train fare and such, obviously. Because as someone who is also frequently asked to interpret for free, this situation really hits a sore spot for me... I feel that professional interpreters get paid a lot of money for what they do in part for the necessity to grapple with their own emotions when they're caught in the middle of such difficult situations. It was really disingenuous of your acquaintance in Japan to ask you to do this without telling you what you were getting into!

I hope I don't sound like I'm blaming you for anything, because honestly, I'm not. You're probably a much nicer person than I am for taking on such a task. But you'll probably find yourself in a similar predicament again because many people think interpreting is easy peasy for someone who speaks more than one language, and they will be offended when you turn them down. So it will be hard, but learn to say no when you're asked to interpret unless you think the compensation will be worth your effort. And only volunteer if you know what you're getting into. Yes, people will be horrified when you refuse, and you might even lose some "friends," but between their convenience and your emotional well-being, which should you choose? I know I sound super callous but sometimes you gotta act for your own best interest, you know?

I'm very sorry for the mother's loss and I hope everything works out as best as it can. Take care.
posted by misozaki at 3:36 PM on April 12, 2014 [10 favorites]

I have kind of a different perspective on.this. I worked at.the medical examiners office in NYC on the identification of the WTC remains. I was there 3 1/2 years - I got there 2 weeks after 9/11 and left when the project was done.

Part of my job was meeting with families after remains had been identified. Often it was just a foot or a piece of bone.

Fuji bank had an office in the World Trade Center and so I met with lots of Japanese families (and interpreters from the bank), some of them fresh off the plane from Japan that morning.

A significant number of family members wanted to see the remains we had identified. (The remains were stored in refrigerated trucks by our office.)

Hold on, I'm on my phone - let me get to a computer to finish. ..
posted by orsonet at 3:37 PM on April 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: If the police can't identify a cause of death, that probably means his body is pretty decomposed and there's not a lot left of him to test.

Although he may even be mummified, depending on the temperature of his apartment. Maybe you could ask them for a brief description so you can pass that along to the mom and suggest gently that she probably doesn't want to have her last memory of him this way.

We may need ColdChef in this thread to tell us more about that part of your question.
posted by vickyverky at 3:41 PM on April 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: OK. So, as for looking at remains...

Most of the people I worked with had a law enforcement background and would respond to the family's request to see the body with an emphatic no. Law enforcement/ME staff seem to feel they have some kind of special buffer for gore that regular people don't have so they have a kind of paternalistic (but well-intentioned) attitude that the family can't handle it.

I always said yes. Here's what I said before:

The body will not look like you remember him. He may not even look fully human. And you can't "unlook," so you need to be careful about the decision.

Then if they wanted to continue, I took them to see the remains.

(Just thought of this...another option would be for someone to take pictures of the body that she could view later).

Everyone chose to look and honestly, it was always helpful for the family. Not seeing a body, in my experience with hundreds of families, makes a death very hard to accept. It's almost as if some reptilian part of the brain still has hope, or confusion.

It seemed to make the grief process cleaner somehow. It didn't make it better, but it cleared the waters. And this is verified by families I talked with years after they saw the remains. One mother said to me, as I got ready to show her photographs of her son's body, "I saw him into this world, I want to see him out."

Nothing is worse than losing a child unless its losing a child to suicide and you feel you might have played a role in it. Seeing a decomposed body is nothing compared to what she is going through and even though she's going through hell, she has the right to be in charge of her experience.

So, my advice would be to say something like I did and then let her make the call. And my advice comes from experience. If you want to tell her what I said, feel free.

As for you, I would suggest the following:

1. Do not go in with her to see the body, if she chooses to do that. It is incredibly emotional, painful, traumatizing and potentially harmful to you. She doesn't need an interpreter to see a body.

2. As for yourself, I would treat this as trauma and read about trauma to help yourself. Peter Levine writes good stuff about trauma.

3. I think of this kind of stress and grief combo (dealing with the logistics of death and the pain of death - especially suicide - at the same time) is particularly harmful. I would think of it is as radioactivity and try to limit your exposure to it as much as you can and then pay careful attention to your own health when it is over.

4. Sometimes it helps to remember that all this would be happening whether you were there or not. You are not responsible for what is going on. You have a role to play, it appears, but that doesn't make you responsible.

5. Having your own feelings/history come up while dealing with trauma is normal.

6. Treat this experience seriously and pay attention to yourself - don't just go home and act like nothing happened. It can help to talk about it, and sometimes it doesn't help to talk about it.

I hope this helps.

posted by orsonet at 3:52 PM on April 12, 2014 [23 favorites]

Best answer: As a former interpreter, I want to reinforce what misozaki has said.

You have volunteered out of the goodness of your heart, and that is a wonderful thing, but I suggest you immediately back away from this situation.

When pro interpreters get paid, we use the funds for therapy, massages, movies, "how to handle difficult cases" training and other strategies that maintain physical and mental health. Bridging two cultures is hard enough when it's a business meeting, an educational talk, a job interview, or a medical exam.

The situation you're in now is extreme interpreting. In my language and your situation, there would be a two-person team, which would reduce the stress and also provide a confidential colleague to debrief.

Contact the Japanese Consulate. Ask them to put you in touch with professional Japanese/German interpreters. Contact these colleagues, and ask for their pro advice and support.* Explain that this situation has brought up some (mental) health issues, and you can't continue. (You've also proven that the Japanese Consulate knows how to contact interpreters.)

DO NOT provide the pro interpreters with the level of detail you supply at the start of this post. Although I'm personally in midwestern US, Mefites are everywhere. I learned (to my eternal shame) just how easy it was for any detail to completely disclose the clients I worked for.

Very best wishes.

* It's conceivable that the interpreters you contact may perceive you as an economic rival, but I think you just have to take that chance.
posted by Jesse the K at 5:44 PM on April 12, 2014 [6 favorites]

Best answer: More than an interpreter, it seems to me that you are acting as someone who is culturally sensitive to the mother's needs.
posted by KokuRyu at 5:44 PM on April 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: If you do this and complete the job, using all the good advice above, you will never forget the strength you called up when you needed it and the kindness you did this woman. The experience will become a part of who you are and it will make you kinder than you might have been and much more confident in your ability to deal with whatever comes your way.

I applaud you for your courage and encourage you to keep going if you possibly can. As for whether this falls under the scope of an interpreter's job, well - many of the most important things we do don't fit into the expected boxes.
posted by aryma at 7:30 PM on April 12, 2014 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Thank you for all your answers! I'm feeling surprisingly fine, no bad dreams last night etc.

My question now would be: How much money do I ask for? The mother said she'd pay for my expenses (train and hotel etc.), which is 500€ alone, and of course my work, but despite doing like five different jobs for these four days, I'm not a professional at any of them and really have no idea. I don't want to ask for too much because she's had enough to deal with financially, but I also feel like I need at least some compensation.
posted by LoonyLovegood at 4:15 AM on April 13, 2014

Best answer: What is the going hrly rate for Japanese/German interpreting? You start with the going rate. By all means start with the bottom end of the range if you feel you're not a pro. But as others have said you'll need support to recover from this trauma and that will probably cost money.

If you feel that's too much money to ask for consider the hrly rates charged by a plumber or car mechanic. What you've been doing is much more niche and much more involved. You have no idea what this family can(not) afford and going back to the plumber/car mechanic, they don't care what their customers can afford or not when quoting a figure. If you want to be extra conscientious ask your program contact about the family's circumstances before naming a figure. But don't feel you can't ask for a reasonable amount because they've already had a lot of expenses. Cost is the least of the mother's problems right now.

And whilst you're talking to your program contact tell them to reach out to professionals for this kind of thing and refer them to the resources the consulate has to offer. This is way beyond your pay grade and your contact should realise that.
posted by koahiatamadl at 6:55 AM on April 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

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