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Mourning The Death Of Strangers

I was about to leave work a few nights ago when EMS was dispatched to a 10-50, which is a motor vehicle accident.

Enough years in emergency care and that tone makes your radar, but doesn’t create much of a blip. Many of those crashes have EMS arrive, only to discover no injuries. Some have patients transported, with minor problems that lead to their speedy evaluation and discharge from our ER. A few have serious, life-threatening injuries. They take all our speed, skill and attention to save life and limb. And often, require transfer to other facilities.

But this last call was none of those. Around 1AM the radio traffic crackled back to dispatch (which we could hear in the emergency department): “Probable Signal Nine.” Signal Nine means the victim is dead at the scene. Not “Dead On Arrival” (DOA) at the hospital, but no hospital necessary.

I knew the paramedics were finished when they asked dispatch to call for the coroner. And my heart sank a little. For all that a multi-trauma is work, I’d rather do it anytime than have someone die, and someone learn of the death.

I know how it usually goes down. Late-night, early-morning car crashes usually involve folks who are relatively young. Sometimes they’ve been drinking, sometimes not. They run off the road, or into another car or truck. They roll their cars or are ejected. Another driver finds them and calls 911. The person who finds them is frantic, may try to help, may try to do CPR. But usually, traumatic cardiac arrest means CPR is futile. So someone is hoping and praying for EMS to arrive, wishing they could do something, desperate and fearful. Not understanding tragic resignation as we do, who have seen it over and over again.

Elsewhere, someone is wondering: “Why doesn’t he come home?” or  “Where is she?” A son or daughter, husband or wife is late. Since many accidents occur near home, they may hear the sirens. Eventually, a phone call comes, or a police officer arrives at the door. In those settings, the bad news is not delivered by me, but by someone else who hates it as much as I do.

In my wicked heart, I sometimes hope that the dead person is mean, lonely and has no one to mourn them — because the dead don’t grieve, only the living. Of course, that is worse, because I’m hoping that up to their death, they lived in a different kind of sorrow.

In a day or two, after such a tone goes out, I’ll read an article, or see a news story, or talk to a deputy who worked the wreck. I’ll get the story, or as much as I desire.

Every human tragedy, every loss, every fire, EMS or police dispatch has a human story. It’s easy to make these into sound bites or scientific sounding diagnoses. “Wasn’t it awful? Yesterday we had that 28-year-old female who died of a sudden cerebral hemorrhage. Oh yes, it appeared to come from her middle cerebral artery. I wonder if she had a family history of aneurysm?  Tsk, tsk.”

I guess we all need to “get the story.” Pain is everywhere, and just because we’re temporarily shielded from it, or not directly involved, doesn’t mean we can’t pause a minute and hurt for those who were awakened by tragedy.

Maybe that’s a way of doing what Jesus said: To mourn with those who mourn. He knew all the diagnoses, after all. But he still wept at suffering.


*This blog post was originally published at*

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