Should I Contact Those He Left Behind?
January 24, 2006 2:05 PM   Subscribe

Should I contact the family of a person whose death I witnessed?

Four years ago a very old man died suddenly while I was helping him find a book at the bookstore I worked at. I was the one holding his hand when he passed, and it was a very powerful experience.

I found out some time later that the next day his family had come to the store to speak to the person who had been with him at the end. I was off that day, and my manager, frustratingly enough, did not give them my contact info.

Several years have gone by, but I can't stop thinking about it. Up until now I haven't had any luck finding the family on my own, but I found his obituary online recently and think that I could get in touch with his family based on the info. Is it even appropriate now? It's been almost exactly 4 years. I'm sure they have moved on as best they can and I don't want to stir up any unnecessary pain. However I know that I would want to be reached out to if it were my father or loved one. What do you think I should do?
posted by hermitosis to Human Relations (71 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
If I were you, I would try to contact them. For all you know, they could still think about it every day, wondering if he had any last words, etc. It would probably mean a great deal to them, especially if you explain that you had tried to track them down at the time but were unable to.
posted by booknerd at 2:08 PM on January 24, 2006

If it were me, I would want you to call. Very much.
posted by Miko at 2:11 PM on January 24, 2006

If they expressed interest in seeing you, I'd definitely try to track them down. And in terms of the four years, it's possible their desire to know more and find out who you are has only increased.
posted by jalexei at 2:12 PM on January 24, 2006

Those in his family are likely thinking of him everyday as it is, so it's not as if your contacting them will stir up a bad memory they have completely forgotten about. Also, they did try to contact you themselves, so it's obvious that they were intrested in meeting you, at least right after it happened. I think you should do it.
posted by Uncle Glendinning at 2:13 PM on January 24, 2006

Yes. It doesn't matter that it's been 4 years.
posted by matildaben at 2:14 PM on January 24, 2006

What they all said. With knobs on. Definately Definately Definately.
posted by Jofus at 2:16 PM on January 24, 2006

Absolutely. There's nothing like closure after a death, and I think you can provide a great deal of it to this family.
posted by tristeza at 2:17 PM on January 24, 2006

What jalexei said.

They expressed interest in seeing you. Considering your experience, you and this family have a common bond. You are also one more connection back to the person these people love, no matter the circumstances.

Chances are, they'll greet you warmly and with open arms. I know that I would, if the person who was with my father when he died, contacted me.
posted by zerokey at 2:18 PM on January 24, 2006

It sounds like *you* need to do it even if they are uninterested. I don't want to see this question asked here again by you in a few years talking about how 8 years have passed since then. On that basis, balanced against little to no possible harm to the family, I say go for it.
posted by stevis at 2:18 PM on January 24, 2006

Do it!

It's an experience that has obviously affected you, and I am sure that it would bring his family comfort and closure to talk with you.
posted by essexjan at 2:20 PM on January 24, 2006

I think it's a mistake to assume that a person who's lost someone close to them "doesn't want it stirred up." I found that when dealing with my mother's death, I would have loved to talk about it but didn't mainly because *other* people got uncomfortable with it.

So yes, I'd do it. As others have said, it's not like his family's forgotten about him.
posted by occhiblu at 2:23 PM on January 24, 2006

Response by poster: Wow. Looks like everyone is in agreement on this one. I still have to confirm the death date with the incident report form that I submitted to my old employer (would hate to contact the wrong family), but the mortuary listed just agreed to forward a letter from me to the family in question. Thanks all.

Yes, it did affect me greatly. He had asked me to help him find books about Buddhism. Two minutes later he was dead. The experience really changed the course of my life.
posted by hermitosis at 2:26 PM on January 24, 2006 [1 favorite]

Do it.
posted by bilabial at 2:28 PM on January 24, 2006

Do it. Learning about the last moments of a loved ones life can be incredibly important to some (most?) people, however negative or positive the story may be.
posted by fire&wings at 2:41 PM on January 24, 2006

Do it. They're wondering what his last words were, and whether he was in pain. You can answer these questions.
posted by frogan at 2:55 PM on January 24, 2006

Yes, do it.
posted by ikkyu2 at 3:15 PM on January 24, 2006

I have a friend whose husband died a year before I knew her, so I never knew him. Several years later, she mentions "Jim" occasionally; obviously she would like to share memories of him.
You see where I am going with this - it has been several years, but a large part of her former life is still alive in her mind.
I concur that the family might be very happy to hear from you and have you explain the circumstances of the time lapse. Even if they are not interested, contacting them will finish the episode for you.
posted by Cranberry at 3:18 PM on January 24, 2006

Yes. Do it.
posted by Brainy at 3:23 PM on January 24, 2006

I would want to hear.
posted by Astro Zombie at 3:24 PM on January 24, 2006

I want to hear about how this went for you afterward. Fascinating. Of course I say do it. MeFis UNITE! (for once)
posted by Brittanie at 3:32 PM on January 24, 2006

Wow, consensus is beautiful. I'll join the chorus; we'd all love to hear how this turns out.
posted by adzm at 3:39 PM on January 24, 2006

Yes. Do it. If the mortuary will forward a letter, all the better.

I found out that an ex girlfriend died when I found her obituary on Google. To this day, I wish I knew what happened. :-|
posted by drstein at 3:50 PM on January 24, 2006

Yes, totally do it.
posted by hooray at 3:58 PM on January 24, 2006

there's no question, you should do it.
posted by ancamp at 4:10 PM on January 24, 2006

Do it. Definitely.

On a related note... My brother Scott passed away in April of 2004. My Dad just sent me a bunch of emails - some from Scott's work, some from a member of computer tech forum to which he contributed. I'm crying as I'm reading them, but I'm also oddly happy and pround. To see that other people saw the great qualities my brother possessed is comforting.
posted by ObscureReferenceMan at 4:16 PM on January 24, 2006

Just to chime in- if it were me, I'd want to hear from you. Absolutely, do it.
posted by Meredith at 4:31 PM on January 24, 2006

A million times yes. And update us when you do.
posted by Plutor at 4:42 PM on January 24, 2006

I would be very comforted to know someone nice was with him at the end. Good for you for finding them. I'd love to hear about it.
posted by gesamtkunstwerk at 5:40 PM on January 24, 2006

A story which I hope is relevant:

When a wandering woman named Wanda died of cancer on January 18, I was the one who was holding her hand.

I didn't know Wanda well; she was a guest of my spiritual community when she became ill. In the absence of any family, and because we had come to love her, our community made the commitment to care for her during her illness.

After much searching, I tracked down one of her three sons in the Netherlands, and e-mailed to tell them of her death.

To my amazement, they jumped on a plane and flew to Portland for her funeral, which was yesterday.

I was really nervous about meeting them. I was afraid they would resent me/us for not finding them sooner, and for being with her in her final days and moments of life -- a painful but rewarding experience that ought to have been theirs.

We spent three unforgettable days together, culminating in her funeral, which was yesterday. They stayed with us, and we had a chance to share many stories of her life, and of her death.

Her sons lifted a great weight off my heart by forgiving us, and her, for not contacting them sooner. Instead, they said, they were grateful to be spared the pain of trying to care for her at a distance. Instead of seeing her as she was, emaciated and in pain, they saw her last moments reflected in our hearts.

...Need I even bother to add my voice to the chorus that says, yes, contact them?
posted by ottereroticist at 5:47 PM on January 24, 2006 [1 favorite]

Yes, yes, yes.

And please update us, if it feels appropriate?
posted by kalimac at 5:57 PM on January 24, 2006

Do it.
posted by Mercaptan at 6:51 PM on January 24, 2006

Do it.
posted by jdroth at 8:08 PM on January 24, 2006

Response by poster: Incident report matches obitituary. I'll send the letter tomorrow and will definitely post an update.
posted by hermitosis at 8:29 PM on January 24, 2006

good. spend money even. do it. Be sure to follow up!
posted by mwhybark at 8:51 PM on January 24, 2006

I've never seen such consensus from AskMe before!

And just to echo, please let us know how it goes.
posted by apple scruff at 8:57 PM on January 24, 2006

Not that I think you shouldn't do it, but just to clarify: the family came in the day after the man died to see you but you weren't there and they never came back? Doesn't seem like they were very intent on knowing what happened.
posted by Skyanth at 12:08 AM on January 25, 2006

Sidebar this, Matt. It is awesome.
posted by By The Grace of God at 2:21 AM on January 25, 2006

posted by the cuban at 4:27 AM on January 25, 2006

It's good of you to think of them, and not only your own perspective on the experience.
posted by raedyn at 6:28 AM on January 25, 2006

I'm saying yes, because you should. And because it'll be easier for me to look up this thread later on to find out what happened!
Please update us, if you're ok with that...
posted by UnclePlayground at 8:56 AM on January 25, 2006

Another vote for "do it." It's the human/humane thing.
posted by five fresh fish at 10:54 AM on January 25, 2006

Yes, even if they decline to speak with you, I think you needed to do this for yourself.

I ♥ AskMefi.
posted by deborah at 11:40 AM on January 25, 2006

Death always affects us in strange ways, it can be a sad thing, but it can always be beautiful in the way that it touches our lives.

When I was younger I worked in a call center for a short time, I called a number and asked for a woman, and found that I was speaking to her husband. He told me how she had died the day before and how much he loved and missed her, and how her funeral was tomorrrow. I was a stranger thousands of miles away and this man just needed someone to tell how much he loved and missed his wife. I still wonder how he's doing, for one moment our lives touched, and to this day I tear up even thinking about it.

Its been 4 years yes, but it will mean so much to the family to hear from you. Please update the thread!
posted by skrike at 11:56 AM on January 25, 2006

Response by poster: I mailed the letter today. There's no way I would have acted so fast without all of this urging. It will probably take at least a week for me to hear something, ideally. I'll let you know what happens!
posted by hermitosis at 1:33 PM on January 25, 2006

Any update?
posted by CunningLinguist at 5:32 PM on February 12, 2006

Response by poster: Update! (Am I supposed to post to the front page of Ask Metafilter, or just here in the thread?)

And it's a rather spooky update, I'm afraid.

Tonight I was sitting here reading Ask Metafilter (ironically enough) when the phone rang. It was a woman calling about my letter. I dropped everything I was doing to talk with her. I got a very strange feeling from her right away... she seemed very dry and distracted. She asked me if I would answer a few questions for her, and I agreed. I began to tell her what I knew, and then she began interrupting me with very detailed questions. She began by testing to make sure I was telling the truth, by asking me specific details about the location of the store, etc. Then she moved on to the event itself. It seemed as if she was taking notes from my answers.

At first I anticipated this, imagining that she was trying to really understand the entire scenario under which he passed away. But then the questions began to sound very meticulous and terse, as if I was giving a legal statement. One of the first questions was, "Why exactly did you wait so long to contact us?" which I answered very humbly. But she immediately moved on. When I said he fell backward, she sounded surprised and made me repeat it several times. She asked very specific questions about the CPR we administered, and even asked me for information about other people at the scene, such as their names (which of course I don't have). She asked me how many EMT workers were there and what were their names and what each of them were doing. She asked me to tell her exactly what they did to him to revive him. I was very uncomfortable describing it so clinically. For example, I told her that I had been called into my boss's office by the time the EMT guys were cleaning up. And she asked, "What was there to clean up?" forcing me to say, "Um, pieces of his clothes... that they had cut off of him..."

And then she repeated several of the earlier questions in different words to check (presumably) whether any answers had changed. As I said, very terse and emotionless. And I grew increasingly afraid that she'd just end the conversation and I'd never find out what the questions meant.

She asked whether his eyes were open, and I told her that yes, for several minutes they were, though he was completely unconscious. She seemed taken aback to hear this about his eyes, but didn't say why. She would pick one word out of my responses (such as when I said that he looked "shocked" to have fallen so suddenly) and then ask me to elaborate and defend it at length. Just as we would have in court, we went over the story several times from different angles. She sounded baffled by some of my answers. I began to get the idea that perhaps there had been some strange legal issue that had been left unresolved since then. And then she began to thank me for my time, and I could feel the conversation ending, and I was even more in the dark than I had been before she called, so I panicked and interrupted her.

"Is there something wrong?" I asked. "If there is something about all this that doesn't seem right, I'd be happy to talk about it and try and answer your questions." That's when it got weird, because she started talking about how confused she was because I kept saying he was very old, when actually he hadn't really been that old-- yet the obituary said he was 82. Then she asked me if his hair was white when I saw him. "Yes, I...think so," I said. Well, she said, his hair hadn't ever been white before and she had been shocked when the mortician told her that it was white when he received the body.

Then she asked more obscure questions about how long I had left his side while I went to summon help, etc. And then she thanked me six or seven times for my letter and for making an effort to contact her, not that it mattered much after all this time, and how much her family genuinely appreciated it. She asked me why I had moved to New York City that year, and what I was doing now. Oh, and by the way, was there a police officer present with the emergency medical team? I managed to stammer answers, and assure her that she could contact me any time if she remembered anything else she would like to ask.

So now it's all done. I suppose that no story ever ties up neatly, but this really shocked me. Also, I raelized after I got off the phone that she never said who she was. If this was his wife, then she must also be very old and may possbily have a declining grasp on reality. Or else all these questions were about something specific and very strange that I will never find out. Either way, it was an incredibly David Lynch-ian half hour that left me with chills. My whole memory of what really happened has been changed, and now I don't know how much I can trust my own recollection. So now I am sitting here totally stymied with "?!?" hovering over my head, but I guess I'm grateful for an ending to what was one of the stranger stories of my life, however cinematically unsatisfying.

And that's all I've got. Thanks again all for your encouragement and interest.
posted by hermitosis at 5:10 PM on February 13, 2006 [8 favorites]

Weird. Well, I can imagine someone close to him (maybe his daughter) just wanting to get all the details she could. Does sound very strange, though.
posted by delmoi at 9:29 PM on February 13, 2006

"My whole memory of what really happened has been changed, and now I don't know how much I can trust my own recollection."

We don't have much choice as to whether or not to trust our memories. But memory research has clearly shown that memory isn't that reliable, especially in a case such as yours where so much time has passed. The most succinct way to describe the dominant ways in which memory is unreliable, is that we rewrite the story, add details, subtract others, all in a way that supports the essential narrative we've constructed about the event. I'm not saying that his hair wasn't white, but it's a good example: it may well be the case that his hair wasn't white but that your recollection of the event has been influenced by your sense that he was quite old.

It's kind of disturbing to learn how much of our memory is fiction (or selectively incomplete); but on the other hand, in situations like yours where there is a conflict between accounts and similar stuff that is very disturbing, it can be a comfort to realize how much our expectations, desire for a clear narrative logic, and such all contribute to change our memories in very substantial ways. You are not necessarily living a David Lynch movie.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 10:06 PM on February 13, 2006

The truth is stranger than fiction; And the truth is indeed that art imitates life.

As a (half-assed, wannabe writer) people ask me - and other writers or storytellers of any medium - where they get their ideas. We're collectively soaking in them, practically growing on trees, there to be picked like so many cherries if you just open your eyes and know how to look for them. Some are young, hard and tart, some are ripe and luscious, some are rotten, soft and bitter.

Anyway, tangenting.

Thanks for the update. Powerful stuff.
posted by loquacious at 11:07 PM on February 13, 2006

Response by poster: I agree with you, Ethereal Bligh, about the flimsiness of eyewitness testimony and I do indeed still doubt some of what I remember... but regarding the hair, I even have his obituary photo, and what can I say... it's white.

I guess all situations like these are just a preparation for the gradual disintegration of my own brain...
posted by hermitosis at 11:29 PM on February 13, 2006

Looking for incriminating evidence ? Just an hypothesis
posted by elpapacito at 5:14 AM on February 14, 2006

Well, grief does strange things to peopl,e, and it sounds as though there may be some mental illness going on, too. The nice thing is, you brought some degree of resolution to the matter for yourself and her. Hope it can now be laid to restt.
posted by Miko at 6:36 AM on February 14, 2006

I don't know why this just popped into my head, but it did:

I bet this woman may have previously gone to a psychic afterlife-researcher quack, one of those charlatans who gives vague answers about your much-missed loved ones who have died. And the psychic probably gave vague answers about the manner of the relative's death: "it was very sudden", or "I sense the presense of a police officer" or "there was the color beige involved" or something vague like that, which the grieving relative can interpret as needed, to feel some false connection to the loved-one's death.

I think I feel this way, because from your description, it sounds like this woman already had a narrative in her mind of what happened to her relative, a narrative she assumed your story would back up. You report her being surprised by certain parts of your story; maybe that's because you were saying things different from her "established" chain of events.

Anyway, just a thought.
posted by Asparagirl at 9:02 AM on February 14, 2006

I think she was looking to sue the bookstore for negligence. I bet it was the daughter. People can be so gross.
posted by pomegranate at 10:29 AM on February 14, 2006

What pomegranate said. Betcha the call was recorded, too. Hopefully your good deed will go unpunished - or unsubpoenaed, as the case may be.
posted by MaxVonCretin at 11:12 AM on February 14, 2006

Yeah, it totally sounded litigious to me. Blameful society.
posted by cavalier at 11:46 AM on February 14, 2006

I was thinking about the lawsuit angle at first as well, but Asparagirl has an interesting take.
posted by jikel_morten at 12:13 PM on February 14, 2006

Response by poster: Yeah, I agree with Asparagirl too-- not necessarily about the psychic, but about her idea of the story having already solidified and conflicting with mine. As I just posted in MeTa:

Everything about his death made sense to me when it occurred (other than a medical team trying to shock an 82 year old man back to life, but that's a whole other matter). So it's very strange to have been grabbed onto by someone for whom nothing about the death makes sense and be put on the spot to try to solve it for them.

Also she told me virtually nothing about him, other than that she was glad I was with him at the end, because "otherwise he would have just died at home alone." So even now I still only know a few scant details (interesting as they are) from his obit.
posted by hermitosis at 12:26 PM on February 14, 2006

It sounds like a lawyer's questions to me. It might be a combination of being emotionally disturbed / senile and also a recent legal experience, like suing the bookstore or the paramedics. Frequently, people who have mental issues get involved in litigation and get very obsessed with every little detail about a case or potential case.
posted by Mid at 2:58 PM on February 14, 2006

Sounds like maybe the man and the woman on the phone were estranged.
posted by samh23 at 4:19 PM on February 14, 2006

Why are the memory, lawsuit and psychic people ignoring the most bizarre detail of the story: she said he was young and had young hair when he was an 82 year old man with white hair?

I think it's his old wife and she's just kind of lost it.
posted by dgaicun at 6:15 PM on February 14, 2006

Ah, I see Mid incorporated that into his lawsuit narrative. Maybe.

Next time somebody asks a question like this I'll tell them 'no', now that I realize there are possible legal issues they are opening themselves up to.
posted by dgaicun at 6:17 PM on February 14, 2006

No legal issues -- just crazy person issues. You can run into those no matter what you do.

Also, I agree with dgaicun that the white hair detail is the giveaway that something more than just a lawsuit is going on. Someone's out of it or confused or something.

Also, the weird tone of voice / flat affect might be from medication.
posted by Mid at 8:02 PM on February 14, 2006

I think it was rather foolish on your part not to ask who you were speaking to.

You went on for 30 minutes answering such minutia and it never occurred to you to find out who you were revealing so much to?

Cold, calculating lawyer is much more likely than senile detail-obsessed widow.
posted by Ynoxas at 10:19 PM on February 14, 2006

She sounds pretty confused if she herself didn't think of him as old, nor know he had white hair (the latter part could arguably happen if she hadn't seen him for some time). Those who are coming up with more complicated and subtle answers either missed that part or its importance. Doesn't sound like a basis to doubt your own memory too much, since her story contradicts absolute fact. This explanation is completely plausable and every other one isn't.

To those taking the lawsuit angle, of course, there's also the combined way: a mentally ill relative pursuing a lawsuit - hardly unheard of. But not a lawyer, short of an incredibly calculating, lying one getting you off your game by acting crazy.
posted by abcde at 11:20 PM on February 14, 2006

Of course, it would be the freakiest thing ever if the woman on the phone posted to this thread, like the star wars guy did.
posted by mecran01 at 3:27 PM on February 15, 2006

I don't suppose this person's phone number is still on your caller ID? Failing that, it might appear on your phone bill if you receive an itemized phone call list. I think I'd definitely use that to learn at least a name or get an area code out of it that would put this person somewhere geographically. If it traces back to a law office, or a psychic's hotline, or whatever you'll at least have somewhat of an answer.
posted by stevis at 10:11 AM on February 16, 2006

Thanks for following up, by the way. That was fascinating.
posted by stevis at 10:12 AM on February 16, 2006

The star wars guy posted to this thread?!
posted by uncanny hengeman at 12:35 AM on February 18, 2006

Thanks for the interesting update.

Myself, I'm going with paralegal from the families lawyer.
posted by cedar at 9:03 AM on February 18, 2006

Just a few days ago I tried to search for this thread to see if there was an update. Even if the experience was weirsd, I'm glad you contacted the family, and if you had nothing to blame in the death then you should have nothing to fear.
posted by Brittanie at 7:36 PM on February 20, 2006

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