How to live with what I do.
December 10, 2007 9:36 PM   Subscribe

I know They're dead, but am I now too?

I work in forensic engineering with cars. My firm only gets cases if there is a fatality or huge disability, since we end up fighting huge automobile corporations.

I have no qualms with that. Lawyers can fight that out.

My question is this:
How do I deal with what happened? I get literally hundreds of pictures and videos a week, all of accident scenes. I have seen thousands of dead people. I have seen people die in unimaginable ways on video and in pictures. I see this every day. It's like Youtube but you know it's real, and everyone dies, and there's usually a fire in the end. Every day.

To this point I have been fairly ok with it. It happens. Just so happens we have pictures, and now video. Before, during and after. It makes my cases easier, but it weighs on me heavily.

There are certain things on the internet everyone sees, and can't unsee. The 9/11 Jumpers, the "Russian Soldier", all those Beheading videos.

How do I live a normal life when I see the worst of the end? Every single day.

I've been living like this for years. My real question is how do I continue to live with it.
posted by anonymous to Health & Fitness (32 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
Try reading Fight Club.
posted by klangklangston at 9:59 PM on December 10, 2007 [3 favorites]

I worked in a law firm that dealt a lot with accidents and insurance. I've seen my fair share as well, as part of my job was to print them for evidence, all in glorious color on large sheets.

In the end, I just decided it wasn't a task I could do on a regular basis. I still have the image fresh in my mind of the limbless bus driver dead on the stretcher blankly staring at the camera.

But...I've accepted in since then. While I don't now work in an industry that I have to deal with such things, I am better prepared for the mental issues involved in it, I think. Having a death in my family (my mother, 13 months ago) has made my own mortality clear, and therefore made me realize that death (including horrific accidents) is as much as part of life as living life is.
posted by Kickstart70 at 10:04 PM on December 10, 2007

Develop a dark, dark, dark, sense of humor. That's what doctors, police, firemen and funeral directors do. The human psyche needs to laugh and rail at the saddest (and sometimes silliest) part of life.
posted by filmgeek at 10:25 PM on December 10, 2007

I think working extra hard to counterbalance the atrocities you see will help. Find ways to weave compassion into your life, and especially your work. When you see pictures and videos that are extra heavy, stop and give it a moment...even if your head is blank and you don't know what to think. Maybe have a mantra in your head, a RIP blessing. Say it out loud if you have to. Find ways to be good at what you do, while maintaining respect for the dead. Being able to handle both will strengthen your mind and soul

Think of this as a constant struggle to balance between being fair and impartial towards your job, and whole and loving in the way you do it. Let both carry over into your personal life. You are not a machine. You are not emotionless.

But start small, maybe with a moment, a ritual, by making up an alternate happy ending for the victim, thinking about something positive they may have left behind in the world, something, anything to acknowledge that you are a human being allowing yourself to connect with the demise of another. My guess is that once you start thinking of how to begin this, you'll figure it out, and eventually latch onto to some coping techniques that work for you.
posted by iamkimiam at 10:35 PM on December 10, 2007 [5 favorites]

If ColdChef ever happens into this thread, and I hope he does, listen to his advice.
posted by lilywing13 at 10:55 PM on December 10, 2007 [1 favorite]

Also, I could not do what you do every day. I'm sure there is a huge amount of burnout. If you can do what you do, and give these deceased people some respect and maybe justice at the end of the day, then, you are doing really good work. It's not an easy job, and there's no shame if you need to do something else.
posted by lilywing13 at 10:59 PM on December 10, 2007

I've thought about this a bit more and I'm kinda blown away by this AskMe. I think what you do is amazing. It's a very important and unique career path. It's not the kind of job you clock out of at the end of the day and forget about until the alarm clock rings the next morning. Obviously.

But that's pretty cool. It can become the kind of thing that allows you to have life experience, wisdom, and coping mechanisms that others don't have the opportunity to explore or develop.

I'm sure when people ask you what you do for a living, you're met with a mix of reactions and questions. You aren't required to indulge them of course, but you know and they know that there's something else going on, some part of you, some experience that they don't understand and likely don't relate to. Being different, or morbid, or super serious, or comically twisted, isn't's a result of the experiences you have and life you lead. I think if you love your job, you should try to embrace this aspect of it just as much as the rest. Because it's pretty darn special and it takes a certain kind of character to plug on like you do. I'd be proud of your successes and the process of it all. And maybe try to cultivate that some more.

I dunno, like I said, I'm pretty blown away by the thought of what it is you do, and I'm glad you do it! Rock on.
posted by iamkimiam at 11:03 PM on December 10, 2007

Gah...on reread...I wasn't suggesting that you are different, morbid, serious or twisted. Just sayin' that if you feel that way (and we all do sometimes, for whatever reasons), just embrace it. :)
posted by iamkimiam at 11:10 PM on December 10, 2007

It sounds like this job is making you really, really sad. Maybe you should quit.
posted by salvia at 11:12 PM on December 10, 2007 [1 favorite]

This triggers something I read about group dynamics in hospital settings where the staff are faced with overwhelming constant human misery and have to provide care. In one case study the staff tend to get snippy because they are too emotionally drained to form bonds, so they get closed off. Regular psychotherapy sessions with all of the staff, even those who didn't think they were having any problem coping, proved to help everyone enormously.
posted by PercussivePaul at 11:13 PM on December 10, 2007

Talk to a professional.
posted by nanojath at 11:14 PM on December 10, 2007 [1 favorite]

You've got to develop a different perspective. Here's my take on it:

Death happens all the time every day. Thousands die each day. You will die, and everyone you've ever known or loved is going to die, too. Maybe tomorrow. Maybe violently.

And here's the other thing: we're all full of blood and gore all the time. It doesn't magically materialize upon injury--it just becomes visible. Take a day picturing x-ray views of everyone you might feel like a horror show if you have a particularly vivid imagination. But it's just the truth. Humans are just strung together fleshy bits, hit us hard enough and we get messy. The horrors you see in accident scenes are constantly walking around you--heck, you're comprised entirely of one yourself. Yes, you have all the bones and blood and organs the pictures do, just arranged a little diffently. Without all that, you would be just as dead as they are.

You can't personally resurrect the dead, you can't change the fact that people die all the time... but in our irrational context, such a reality is hard to grasp. Come to terms with some truths: none of us are here for long. Most of us will end up having little direct influence over our means of death. And frankly, it doesn't matter. If you die, things stop mattering! (Even most religions would agree here--life isn't particularly relevant once you're dead, things will at least conclude before/if you ever regain consciousness.) I recommend you think all this through rationally, and see where it takes you. Realize that your current occupation hasn't brought you any closer or farther away from death. But then, literally facing death every day isn't for everyone. Not everyone wants to face these hard truths, and why should they?

You asked if you're dead, and I suppose the answer is yes. We all are eventually, and this has always been the case, whether we realized it or not. That's life.
posted by Phyltre at 11:23 PM on December 10, 2007 [8 favorites]

I have never had a job like yours, but I have known a number of people in caring professions - mental health nursing, midwifery, medicine - who over time have tended to burn out. People have a limited capacity for dealing with mortality again and again.

You have done a great job, and there is no shame in taking up something else. You could even take your expertise and become a safety engineer instead, and know that your new work prevents the things that you are seeing now.

I think one of the big problems people have in these difficult, trying professions is the belief that a true pro can be tough and deal with everything right up until retirement. That's a sort of machismo that you should feel free to reject.

If you are at the point, after years, of saying "how do I continue", "don't continue" is a very valid option you should consider.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 12:25 AM on December 11, 2007

I remember listening to a radio interview with Dr William "Bill" Bass of the University of Tennessee, who is (in)famous for founding the so-called "body farm" for the study of forensic entomology. His attitude was inspiringly sober without a hint of morbidity; the value and fascination of his work had entirely inured him to the macabreness.

I can't find that interview now, but you may find it interesting to read more about his perspective. There's also a book and a couple of documentaries. 1, 2.
posted by snarfois at 1:30 AM on December 11, 2007

The ability to compartmentalize is key; mentally partition yourself, as to avoid a kind of mental contamination.
posted by oxford blue at 2:06 AM on December 11, 2007

Surely your firm would be willing to pay for professional counselling/therapy for someone with your years of experience, in order to maintain your ability to do the job. I'm not knocking the advice here, but I agree with nanojath, this is a serious problem that needs to be taken seriously.
posted by teleskiving at 3:21 AM on December 11, 2007

It seems to me that sheer volume is overcoming the mental partitions you've erected to date.
I too would suggest reading anything by Bill Bass, particularly because the angle there is, you are doing justice to those maimed and injured. By piecing together your bit of their story, you do them some justice. Forensic pathologists see the kinds of things you do, NOT the caring professions.

Most people working in the caring professions don't see the sheer volumn you do. And when they do, they've spent years studying the underlying anatomy of the structures they see which allows them to see things from a certain distance. Most trauma surgeons I know, whether we like it or not, see what's coming through the emergency room door as and open femur, penetrating this or a compound that. That degloved hand has little ick factor and far more wow factor for them. And, more importantly they get to actively do something about it.

Your post suggests you've reached a significant point, whether that point is burnout or not is impossible for us here to say. A professional will be able to tell you if you have some element of PTSD for example. Can you discuss this with your employer? Would they be sympathetic in changing some of your work?
posted by Wilder at 3:24 AM on December 11, 2007

There is a story in "Military Brats" that stands in contrast to the "usual" (no experience so i can't say for sure) disposition of drill instructors (DI) to their families. She says the work life tends to creep into the home life, with the DI ordering the family around at times, doing white glove inspections, super serious attitude all the time, etc. The one DI she found that didn't do this completely segregated his work life from his home life. He'd come home and proceed immediately to the bedroom where he would change into civilian clothing, and his civilian attitude as well. His family respected that boundry and never breached it, not even saying hi to him when he came home until after he was out of uniform.

So I think you can focus on professionalism when at work, but strive to find a mnemonic device, like the DI's uniform, to signal the change from professionalism to civilian life. No one need know what the device is but you, and it should be important enough that it represents a real change to you. A pen in the pocket is one thing, but glasses vs. contacts another, etc. I don't think that'd be a good one though. Maybe you wear suits to work and rarely outside of work. Etc. Just make sure it represents something big and visceral to you.
posted by jwells at 5:37 AM on December 11, 2007

... and defiantly talk with a professional about this. It's important to have a sounding board and difficult for it to be anyone not at work who won't appreciate it as clearly as your coworkers or people in related fields. Therapists and the like are one of them.
posted by jwells at 5:41 AM on December 11, 2007

Allow yourself to approach this stuff with dark humor. Laughing at the miseries of life doesn't negate your humanity if you're doing it to serve humanity and still sleep at night. But don't do it alone - laughing with colleagues is a huge step towards preserving your mental health. If you don't have them around where you work now, seek them out online and through professional contacts.

Second, recognize that you're doing something many people would not do, but because someone HAS to do it, the people who can tolerate it must take it on. That doesn't mean they have to do it forever. If it's robbing you of your ability to savor life, then there will be someone else to step up and take over when you move on. In the meantime, hang on to the value of what you're doing for those people who aren't around to speak for themselves any longer.
posted by itstheclamsname at 6:56 AM on December 11, 2007

Spend as much time as possible face to face with real, live people.
posted by OlderThanTOS at 7:14 AM on December 11, 2007

There is a frigid breath of more than Antarctic, I would say almost lunar isolation coming off of your question.

I'd think about trying to develop an informal circle of people who do this kind of thing for a living, with a goal of helping each other cope as far as human(e)ly possible.
posted by jamjam at 8:30 AM on December 11, 2007

jamjam is exactly right. Network. If your company doesn't already have it, create an onsite or offsite to discuss this with your colleagues. Come up with a monthly or bimonthly workshop/event/session and invite speakers. Mix up the serious stuff with lighter fare. Get your boss to let you blog about it at work. Or go find other industries/careers where this is also an issue and see how they handle it. This might be a constructive way to release the morbid morbidity valve a bit. Great question, good luck, it's gotta be tough.
posted by thinkpiece at 8:49 AM on December 11, 2007

I think your situation is similar to that of therapists who work with extremely difficult clients. The answer would the same: you need supervision. This doesn't mean you need a manager. In this context, supervision means someone who can debrief and unwind with on a regular basis.

I once had a friend who was the activity therapist in the prison wing of Belleview Hospital in New York City. She spent 40 hours a week with some of the the hardest core criminally insane people in the world. The only way you go through something like that is to have a partner you can unload on, someone you respect and trust and can say anything to, and who can provide guidance, support, and wisdom.

Needless to say, your work should pay for this, and it should be done on work time.

You're doing an important job, and a very very difficult job. Make sure you take care of yourself along the way. Good luck!
posted by alms at 10:16 AM on December 11, 2007

jamjam hit something I was feeling too. A very cold feeling of isolation. I want to comment on this (though I am taking it out of context and not arguing against the point it brought it):

You asked if you're dead, and I suppose the answer is yes. We all are eventually, and this has always been the case, whether we realized it or not. That's life.

No-one has said it yet but it is very important and needs to be said, and you need to repeat it to yourself until you believe it. You're not dead, and you never were. You are still alive.
posted by PercussivePaul at 10:17 AM on December 11, 2007

The high incidence of PTSD among EMTs and rescue workers is well known. There is a belief, which I believe to be dangerous, that people can do these kinds of jobs, dealing with violent death, indefinitely, if they just learn to "manage" the resultant stress properly, and develop a professional mindset.

I call bullshit on that, big time.

People who get to the scene first see horror, and package it, so the people down the process and treatment lines can be clinical. When an unresolved impalement case is forced into an emergency room, you see, quickly, what confronting human horror does even to trained trauma personnel. When you get to really bad accident scenes, you see highway patrol personnel hanging back, looking away, waiting on people whose job it is to dig out the dead, so they don't have to. And no one who knows thinks less of anyone who hangs back, or averts their eyes, because sooner or later, the cumulative effect of human gore on human sensibility is destructive.

I think the OP is in a line of work where appreciating the horror is somehow a central part of the job, and that divorcing himself from that, clinically, indefinitely, just isn't possible for a person who wants to remain a full fledged member of the human race. I, for one, wouldn't want a forensic engineer or crash investigator digging through any case where I was involved, who had no emotion about the worst outcomes of poor design, as I know, from personal experience, that informed passion, the need to find out why, is sometimes more than necessary, nay, even vital, to push past the surface explanations, and find the underlying cause of a fatal crash.

So I think, in the best cases, people train for these jobs, and do them, as long as they can, and work hard to pass on what they learn. In fact, I think that's the real job: to learn as much as possible, and pass it on, to good people who will pick that knowledge and passion and carry it themselves, to the next people who step up, ad infinitum, one work generation at time. I think, in some of these jobs, a work generation may be anywhere from 5 to 10 years.

But one day, every person who works in these kinds of jobs has to know, for himself, that he's done as much as he can, before they completely fill their inner psychic bucket. And then, I hope they move on to something that fills that bucket no more. Because otherwise, too often, they drown in liquor bottles, or street drugs, just to stop the mental pictures, and try, just try, for a normal night's sleep. And if that doesn't work, they miss a curve at 75 mph on the way home, themselves, or or wind up eating guns or doing a rope dance, because they know how, and they know for sure that that will stop the nightmares.

One guy I know well, for more than 30 years, was an EMT in southwestern Georgia, for 10 years, after a military career. Bright guy, heavily certified, church going, good family, nice dog. But he did too many runs, and saw too much, and started drinking more beers than was good for him, then more still, and ultimately, he killed a guy walking down the side of the road, on his way home, DUI, one night.

He's doing the last 11 of a mandatory 15 year sentence for vehicular homicide in a Georgia prison, and would be the first to tell you he knew better, all along the way he wasn't able to do better. And he'd tell the OP to get out. Quit. Do something else. Real Soon Now.
posted by paulsc at 11:27 AM on December 11, 2007 [3 favorites]

I think therapy would help you. The last thing you want is to have a nervous breakdown; perhaps self-hypnosis techniques would allow you to put yourself into a restful, meditative state at the end of each day. A cognitive behavioral therapist can teach you these techniques as well as give you exercises to help you during the day when you're feeling overwhelmed.

One of my best friends had a grandfather in WWII whose job was to tag and ship the bodies home. After two years, he got sent home with a dishonorable discharge due to medical complications (he had a nervous breakdown). If you EVER feel like you are close to that, or can't sleep restfully any more, or feel suicidal, DEFINITELY ask for help. I'm sure that mental health care coverage is provided for in your job, given the circumstances.
posted by Unicorn on the cob at 12:10 PM on December 11, 2007

I've read and re-read this question all morning, trying to come up with a truthful answer that doesn't sound flip or obvious. But the truth is...I don't have a good answer because I've never really figured out how to do this myself.

Like you, I work in an industry where the usually-hidden realities of death are a day-to-day occurrence, unavoidable and painful. Last night, I had to remove a body, burned beyond all recognition from a still-smoking car, and then before I even got to go home or even back to the funeral home, I had to remove a body from a trailer where it had been dead for several days. Both left my clothes so rank that I undressed in my back yard, threw the clothes away, and rinsed my body with the gardenhose before going inside. This morning, I made funeral arrangements for a baby who died less than three days after birth due to birth defects. His parents are younger than my youngest cousins. Within the last 24 hours, I've seen more heartbreak, tragedy, gore, and gut-wrenching grief than many people will see in a lifetime.

It's the career I've chosen, and I don't regret it (most of the time I don't), and I'm not asking for anyone's pity. But it's a hard hard job dealing with the death of others. And I don't deal with it very well.

Because of this question, I asked my siblings (who also work in the funeral home) how they deal with these issues. My oldest sister, who likes to give the impression that she's as tough as nails and twice as strong, told me that when she has to bury a baby, she goes home and hugs and kisses her girls and plays with them and nuzzles them and tells them over and over how much she loves them. I asked her if that made her feel better, but she admitted that she does it because she can't imagine NOT doing it after burying a child. She said that serving the families brings her the peace she needs. But only sometimes. Sometimes, she just ignores the pain until it goes away.

My other sister says that she grieves right along side of her families so that she understands what they are going to and she can be more sensitive to their needs. To me, this seems like the easiest way to burn out quickly. And truth be told, she seems to grieve the worst out of all of us.

My brother, who did body removal in New York after 9/11 and in New Orleans after Katrina, has seen more death and gore than all of us put together. I asked him how he dealt with the stresses and the memories of such horrible things. "I have terrible nightmares," he said, "All the time." I suggested to him that this was probably unhealthy, but he countered with, "It makes me more appreciative of what I have."

When I first started in this business, my uncle gave me this advice, "Don't be their friend, be their advocate. If you are grieving with the families, you can't possibly serve them properly. Be attentive and take care of their needs, but don't involve yourself personally. Do your job and that will make what you do have value for them."

Great advice, but hard to take. As much as I try to be a cold and clinical servant of my families, I find myself getting put into positions where their well-being supersedes my own, and my own family suffers. I've missed countless birthday parties and "first-everythings" because my schedule is so erratic. I've stayed up all night with people who can't bear to leave their loved ones alone in our funeral home all night. Is that properly serving them? No. Because I'm allowing them to exhaust themselves on the eve of the hardest day of their life. But I find myself unable to say no.

With time, my family assures me that I'll develop a tougher skin and that I'll remain professionally detached, but I'm not so sure. I wish I could give you a special formula or procedure for avoiding the unavoidable stresses and pains of this kind of work, but they're hidden to me, too. I do think that if you're unable to detach yourself, you may consider a different kind of work, but I'd be the last one to take that advice myself.

I sincerely wish I had something better to say to you, because your pain is my pain and I'd like it to lessen. My email's in my profile if you'd like to continue privately.
posted by ColdChef at 12:55 PM on December 11, 2007 [28 favorites]

I have watched a close friend turn into a weird automaton after working in a violent situation for a year, so I don't have any great advice for you.

Not sure this is relevant, but my "first responder" friends and family who have stayed sane-ish did so though having a big circle of people in similarly traumatic careers and by doing really nurturing things like gardening and animal care on their days off. And eventually they got out of those careers (but they were in them 20+ years, some of them- a lot of them are just hard on you physically, too).
posted by small_ruminant at 2:03 PM on December 11, 2007

My sympathy. My father was a claims adjuster for a big insurance company when I was a small kid. I never stopped hearing lectures about "wrapping your car around a tree" and related fun things. Honestly, I credit my dad for making me a better driver, because of that. But I know it wasn't easy on him. Then he made the unusual leap into sales, and that was the end of his constant exposure to these things.

I don't know what to tell you, I didn't have time for the entire thread. But I'm one of those people who can go all "clinical" and ignore/overlook (or whatever it is I do) the gory and icky stuff and deal with a problem. I never have been in a situation where my exposure was constant though, so I don't know if I can do that mind trick then turn it off when desired, or whether it would make me permanently "cold" or something. I do know, I handle exposure to gore better than I can handle exposure to poverty, where my empathy can overwhelm me. (I'll be glad to get out of South Africa in a couple months!)
posted by Goofyy at 2:13 AM on December 12, 2007

I'm a psych nurse - what keeps me sane are coworkers, online forums, and a lot of reflection. Without the internet and the ability to read so many others' experiences I'd go nuts. Coworkers understand the gory details and offer examples of how to cope and how not to cope. lol.
It's not easy and not for everyone. Actually it's not for most people. I've found my niche and it just happens to be dealing with violent psychopaths and delusional schizophrenics.
What iamkimiam said. Others have the idea that accepting what you see as normal, or trying to close off that part of your life is the key. Tried that. At first it felt great but like any neglected wound it festered.
I leave my job at the hospital but not completely. I always have a patient and a hospital issue I'm particularly focused on doing something about. I've found it constructive and can maintain boundaries by tackling a problem from a purely professional perspective.
For example, when you see something that disturbs you deeply, ask yourself tons of questions about why. Then use your networking and online search mojo to investigate other, similar cases. Eventually you will find a way to make some small change “for the good”.
Finding a way to combat feelings of powerlessness is essential. If you believe you have no control whatsoever you risk becoming jaded, numb, angry… look around. Try bringing a good attitude, a sense of humor, and sugary snacks into that environment… lol it’s like watching zombies wake from the dead.
posted by bkiddo at 12:11 AM on December 15, 2007

I'm sorry to be so late to this discussion. A lot of good advice has already been offered.

My background: I've been involved in emergency medicine since 1991 in one capacity or another, most recently as a paramedic in Northern California. In that function, I've seen a lot of death, in all its stages.

There's a lot of theory about how best to deal with a high level of trauma and still maintain "normal" functionality. It's turning out that some of what we thought we knew about crisis intervention was wrong, and the field of critical stress management is currently in flux. I'm not going to pretend to know more than the strict textbook about any of that: I'm going to be uselessly abstract instead.

We bear witness to death. Every culture has its own ways of dealing with death and the questions of grief and witness: the culture in the United States is, for lack of a better terms, one of displacement. We prefer the witnessing and accommodation of death to be outsourced to a certain class of people that we refer to as "able to deal with it".

We're that class of people. We are, for the most part, not that different from everyone else, except in that we've either been born with or developed the capacity to maintain our empathy while simultaneously being able to confront the brutal and banal realities of the end of life.

I believe it isn't possible to do that on a routine basis without changing. You ask how you can live a normal life while seeing these things daily. If, by "normal", you mean "how do I live as if I were unaware of the reality of death", you can't: even though that's the state most people exist in. I'm explicitly not passing judgment on most people: that kind of mindset is necessary, frankly, if you're going to get through the day.

But perhaps a better question is how you can come to grips with the fact that you do not have a normal life: you have an extraordinary one, in which you daily confront that from which most people recoil. And you feel empathy for the victims you see.

The last line of Blade Runner, in its wonderful nihilism, is:
It's too bad she won't live. But then again, who does?
The answer is that you do. You bear witness, and then you go out and live. Don't feel guilty for it. Let it animate your own life: you, more than almost everyone you know, are keenly aware of the transient, ephemeral nature of life. So live the hell out of it.

ColdChef mentioned his brother, who has nightmares. This may sound excessively melodramatic, but I believe his brother is, in carrying those nightmares, performing a kind of atonement for a society that seems to have largely shuffled the reality of what happened in New Orleans off to the side. He is bearing witness, in the darker sense: he is bleeding for all of our sins.

Anyway, I don't know whether any of this helped. At the very least, you can know in reading this thread that you're not alone. Feel free to email me if you want to talk offline, although I'm not in the same line of work that you are, and perhaps less able to identify with your predicament than he is.
posted by scrump at 7:13 PM on December 16, 2007 [3 favorites]

« Older equatorial physics   |   Help me find some good blues-rock songs Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.