To see dead people, or not to see...
April 9, 2008 8:49 AM   Subscribe

How does one socialize with the dead?

As a medical student, my significant other is thinking about interning at a medical examiner's office in a city for a few months full time. She would have the chance to do her own research, follow examiners into crime scenes, or observe autopsies.

To me this.. sounds great! But I'm concerned about the psychological effects of being around bodies all the time. She's very respectful and considerate, introverted but somewhat down-to-earth, and she sees this internship as something very interesting, and not as an exotic fodder-for-stories opportunity. She's never ever been freaked out by blood or bodies in anatomy labs, but this is a totally different issue. These aren't the clean, well-kept natural-death bodies that she encounters in anatomy labs: these are bodies that will have been in car accidents, been murdered, raped, etc.

So I ask to the members of AskMe who have worked in morgues, graveyards, crime scenes, nurses, EMTs, etc? What is your experience dealing with the dead (in a medical context)? Has this affected your viewpoint (made you more pessimistic or optimistic), or your relationships with people (emotionally/mentally/physically)?

Thanks in advance!
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (11 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
At first, it's hard because you relate to everybody and everything, but you get used to it remarkably quickly. It becomes an interesting exercise, a puzzle to solve, a toy to take apart- you depersonalize the victims and separate yourself almost by instinct- except for that One Thing.

Everybody has a One Thing that forces them to confront man's inhumanity to man, your own mortality, every fear you ever had. It's the one that will stick with you, and give you nightmares- you probably learn the most from those, because they find a way past your defenses, but it's still startling. For me, it was infant autopsies. Just could not handle it as an observer; I still cry when I think about it.

The important part for your SO to remember is that it's okay if she can't handle her One Thing, as long as she can behave professionally. If none of it bothered her, ever, there would be something fundamentally wrong with her.

More prosaically, tell her to carry a water bottle, and snacks. Homicide shifts and coroner shifts can be looooooooooooooong if something's happening, and it's hard to get a chance to eat. Tell her to bring her study materials, as well, becuse homicide and coroner shifts can be long and booooooooooooooooooring if nothing's happening. And good luck!
posted by headspace at 9:07 AM on April 9, 2008

My mom was an EMT and an ER nurse and I got the impression that people who are around these sort of things either learn to deal with it (usually with a rather morbid sense of humour) or they can't take it and leave before it has any permanent effect.

However, you can see if the city offers any counseling resources for its employees. It might help her adjust, but if she's cut out for this kind of thing, she'll quickly get used to it.
posted by Nelsormensch at 9:12 AM on April 9, 2008

My experience with the dead is entirely with the murdered from the stint I did as a public defender. I was fortunate that as a PD, not a cop, I saw only the evidence (photos, mostly, but also bloody clothes or weapons) and not the bodies (or the scenes) themselves. My experience is in that way one step removed from the experience of others who deal with the dead. Because I had to memorize and internalize the details of the violence, however, my experience was one step closer.

It's hard--which is part of the reason I don't do it anymore. It's also fascinating--which is why I find that most days I miss it.

You do develop a unique relationship with the people you work with--with all the stereotypical gallows humor--because they understand on a visceral level what you are coping with and your family and friends do not. But I did not--and a lot of people I worked with, including the cops did not--find it created a barrier to relationships with people not involved in that world. Some days I felt a little distant, but that happened before and after I had that exposure to the violently dead.

It is draining. There were days I needed to sit in a dark room and stare at nothing with a strong drink and someone who loved me, saying nothing. There were other days that I needed to drive my body to exhaustion so I could shut my brain off and sleep. There were days I just left the office at the end of the day. There were some days I just wanted to share how interesting my work was with anyone who would listen. In the end, it was like any other intense job.

There is one 16 year old, stabbed 72 times and dragged into an alley to be incompletely hidden by trash and fallen leaves whose face comes into my head at the oddest time, sometimes ripping me out of a deep sleep and keeping me awake. She did look puzzled, and ashen, and in pain, and as though she had been aware she was dying. That's all projection on my part, I'm sure, but some days she follows me everywhere. But I have blurred or forgotten many of the other victims in cases I worked on.

The whole experience changed me, but not fundamentally. It shaded and sharpened my opinions on criminal laws, but did not--as an example--change me from a person who opposes three strikes laws. It both heightened my sensitivity to daily horror stories in the press (like the random murders of children in distant communities which nonetheless headline my local news) and occasionally unable to stomach violence-as-entertainment. On the other hand, it sometimes makes me less inclined to think "what a tragedy" when someone young is murdered because it happens all the damned time and some of us work in an entire industry fueled by it. Thus, the gallows humor and peculiar camaraderie.

Anyway, that's my babbling take. Feel free to me-mail me with specific questions. Or if your S.O. wants to email me, that's in my profile.
posted by crush-onastick at 9:22 AM on April 9, 2008 [5 favorites]

I work and do videography for a private mortuary college that has an in house labratory/embalming facility. We receive all the cases that funeral homes don't want toor don't know how to deal with (i.e. suicides, accident victims, murders etc.).

I can only speak from my personal experience, but it definitely had/has an impact on me. I used to work exclusively in the realm of horror films before this gig, so I went in cocky thinking I'd seen so much weird stuff, how bad could it be? I left the first shoot vomitting and shaken. It's so much more visceral in reality, it's hard for those who haven't seen it or have only seen "the little old lady down the road" in a coffin. Seeing the real deal is whole other will definitely stir thoughts and fears in your head and heart, but you learn from that.

My biggest issue is still having a hard time seperating the peron that was as opposed to the body on the table. I look at them and think about how their last moments must have been. I wonder what joy they felt when they learned to ride a bike, or if they enjoyed certain holidays. It sounds weird, you look at all your experiences and project them onto the victims....maybe it's just a coping mechanism.

I've been at it for around 3 years now and I can say it has gotten easier to deal with. Some of the people above mentioned "gallows humor"...I tend to use a lot more of that nowadays. Being in a medical community it will probably be easier to find people to talk to and share your experiences, fears and concerns with. You'll probably find it's not something you can easily bring up to folks outside of that world (outside of their interest or morbid curiousity). I used to have the smug younger attitude that violence was no big deal or entertaining...but the more I see the more difficult it is to enjoy violent entertainment. I still have nightmare sometimes...and just when I think I've seen the worst thing ever, I always seem to run into something new and difficult. So...all in all I think it will definitely change your perspective.

My final analysis: It has had an impact on a positive sense, I find I really appreciate those around me more than ever...yourealize how easily all could disappear. It has given me a new ability to deal better with crisis and unpleasant sights/issues. It has also been very educational (from an anatomical/chemical standpoint).
On the flip side: I realize just how much I (personally YMMV) fear death. Being professional on the job and in the editing bay (reviewing/cutting the footage) means I deal with some of those irrational fears via nightmares instead.

Thanks for listening to my POV. I wish your S.O. the best and hope her experience will be a positive one for herself and her future education. :)
posted by MeetCleaverTheatre at 9:52 AM on April 9, 2008 [2 favorites]

I was a journalist in a former life that worked a few crime scenes. Cops and firefighters and such develop a rather crusty sense of humor and gritty workaday life. It's a coping mechanism.

But I also noticed that many of these guys also coached youth sports and loved spending time with their kids. I'm convinced that there are so many "police baseball leagues" and such because a) well, they're mostly guys and guys do that sort of thing, but also b) because it's life, a real beautiful life, as opposed to the messy, dirty version of "life" they get on the job.

Drunk guy wraps his car around a tree and dies? Yeah, you deal with it however you manage to deal with it. Then you go home and play with the kids.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 10:23 AM on April 9, 2008

As a medical student how are you going to deal psychologically with working in the ER? ICU? Hospice? Etc. places where you will have to deal with real, currently live people in pain who die day-in and day-out in your arms. I'd say that is a far greater burden to bear than working with folks for whom you are already certain you can do nothing for and you are certain that their death was not the result of anything you did or did not do, no matter how messy their death may have been.
posted by Pollomacho at 10:31 AM on April 9, 2008

I don't have any personal experience, but the book Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers interviews various professionals to get their take on dealing with the dead -- from morticians to scientists who crash cadavers in cars to medical students dealing with human cadavers. It has a lot of different perspectives and is well-written and interesting, might be something to look into.
posted by sararah at 10:38 AM on April 9, 2008

Seconding the recommendation for Stiff, and adding a rec for Aftermath: cleaning up after CSI goes home. Aftermath does a good job of examining how these people who clean up crime scenes deal with the trauma inherent in their job.

No real experience in dealing with the dead, except a few archeology digs in undergrad. I did notice that even after a couple of centuries, there is still a distinct smell associated with human remains. And it clings.
posted by teleri025 at 11:29 AM on April 9, 2008

You want to talk to ColdChef : mefimail him.
posted by lalochezia at 11:46 AM on April 9, 2008

I went to a bunch of murder scenes as a young reporter, and as others have said above, the standard coping mechanisms are booze and lots of mordant jokes. You never get used to it, but it becomes....doable. There are always going to be images you long to erase but know you never will. You find yourself gravitating towards other people who have been through it, too. (which is why homicide cops, firefighters and reporters tend to get along well)

On the bright side, it can give you some terrific perspective on everyday gripes: no matter how crappy things are going today, it can't hurt to remember that you haven't left a pile of your brains in a discarded baseball cap, or been cut in half on the highway by a badly-secured sheet of plywood from the pickup in front of you.

One thing you should warn her about: it's not necessarily the blood and brains and severed body parts that gets you. It's usually some random detail about the crime scene, maybe a poster on the wall or the shoes on the body or whatever. And sometimes, you just have to go be alone for a bit. Nothing wrong with that.
posted by CunningLinguist at 3:43 PM on April 9, 2008

Over a decade ago I worked for a crime victims center that helped sexual assault victims, violent crime victims and the families of homicide victims. There are still times when it troubles me - especially if I hear a pager go off that has the same ringtone as my old pager. The ERs and crime scenes become part of the person you are.

I don't regret my time at that job, but I accept that it changed me in ways that I could not have anticipated. After 2 years, I left and went back to school to completely change fields.
posted by 26.2 at 6:58 PM on April 9, 2008

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