by Spotter Up/from Doc Band

This weekend Doc Band told my wife about the first time he had to see an autopsy. I sat there listening and thumbing on my iPhone. Doc tells stories in a profound way. There is always a poignant lesson he unwraps from within his tale. He is able to illuminate for anyone listening how to perform a difficult job, and how important it is to actively work to remain connected to our families. Disconnection is an emotional protection mechanism we utilize in order to handle distressing tasks.

It shields our mind in order that we might complete the necessary task at hand, but too much disconnection can cause people to pull away from the things that give them meaning, such as our family, friends, and co-workers.

He stated to my wife that those who are in the  profession of encountering death must remain somewhat detached, in order that what is experienced is not fully taken home with them. Will it be taken home? Of course it will, but in the context of how he was sharing information, he was discussing stress techniques to reduce the shocking effects that come from working in certain professions. The military, law enforcement or emergency services professions (fire and EMS) are more than likely to deal with this kind of stress than the average person will.  However many who are in these professions are not trained on what to expect when they encounter a dead person for the first time.

Are there written instructions on how to unplug during a mission event? Heck no. You do that yourself while on the job and try to drive on. But at some level you need to be able to control your emotions beforehand so it doesn’t take you off point from the mission. However, preparation is a mighty smart thing to do.

I recall a discussion I had with a buddy about the time he spent with a dead person, he was sitting next to a man that committed suicide on a sofa. The individual blew the top of his head off with a shotgun. The body sat upright on the sofa. The only thing left of the head was the lower jaw and its teeth. Don told me he could not stop looking at the head or what was left of it. Hearing the voice of a police officer friend, who entered the room and then spoke to Don, broke the spell. Don collected himself and got back to work.

Doc begins to tell my wife about a time when he was just starting out as an FBI agent. He had to go into a room where autopsies were being performed. Before entering the room he was asked by the pathologist if he’d every seen a dead person before. Doc answered, “Yes”. When he was a young police officer he came upon the body of a young child demolished by a car. When he arrived on scene as a young patrolman he was nearly unable to do his job. His Sergeant said to him, “Do you know this child?” Doc said, “No.” The Sergeant said, “Fine. He is NOT YOUR child. Focus on the job first and then get to crying when you’re done.” Lesson learned.

Doc had never seen a full autopsy performed before, and this framed things in his mind in a different light. He would have to spend a great deal of focused attention on the subject. For everyone, the emotion they may feel is different, but there are some techniques for handling the emotions.

The pathologist looked at Doc and calmly said, “You’re going to see a lot of bodies laying on tables. The medical staff will be using the cadavers as important educational tools. Remember to look at the deceased person(s) as objects and not as people. If you feel dizzy and have distressing emotions, then let those emotions develop or change into feelings of excitement and of deep interest for the task at hand. Understood?” Doc stated to the pathologist an unassured, “yes”. Doc stated he did his best to look at the matter in a very clinical fashion.

Doc then told my wife that the doors of the morgue opened. He entered the room with the pathologist. Other agents, officers and medical professionals were busy at work. He saw a person laying upon a table. The pathologist pointed to it and stated, “This is the one we are going to study.” He lifted up a vibrating saw and began to cut through the top of the skull, in order to remove the brain. Doc began to feel sick and the pathologist could tell by the look on Doc Band’s face that Doc was feeling horrible. Doc had begun to personalize the situation rather than objectify it.

The pathologist then told Doc Band, “Remember, treat this as something exciting to do, and put a lot of interest into it, as if it were the most fascinating thing you’d ever seen.” Doc Band then listed for my wife three techniques he used, and still uses today when teaching people how to deal with this kind of stress so they are able to go on with their job.

1. Engage in thought-stoppage: When your mind begins to think certain thoughts, one of the best things you can do is to tell yourself to stop thinking those thoughts.  You stop the bad thoughts cold and focus on getting to your goal.

2. Reframing and Refocusing: When your mind is engaged in negative thinking, when you tell yourself this is ‘horrible’, ‘terrifying’ or ‘nerve-wracking’ change your thinking by refocusing it and reframing how you see things. Tell yourself that it is important to be engaged in this work at hand. Tell yourself it is important to do because you can potentially save a life by solving a crime, or capturing the culprit. Do not look at the problem directly with emotion. Separate yourself from the emotion and look at it as an important duty or job to be completed. Do not make it become personal or your personal feelings will then get in the way. Tell yourself that working on the corpse is for the benefit of their family or for the benefit of your squad, fire-team or military/LEO brother.

3. Affirmation: When your mind goes into negative territory, begin to tell yourself that everything will be fine. You will survive, you will get through it. Continue to repeat it to yourself. It is similar to marching or running in that you tell yourself you can make it to the next tree, to the next rock until you get to your destination.

In the end the spirit that made them human has left them. They are only a corpse, however do treat the body with dignity and respect. Focus your mind on completing your mission.

Picture via Jeffery Coolidge/Getty Images/Huffington Post

By Michael Kurcina

Mike credits his early military training as the one thing that kept him disciplined through the many years. He currently provides his expertise as an adviser for an agency within the DoD. Michael Kurcina subscribes to the Spotter Up way of life. “I will either find a way or I will make one”.

5 thoughts on “Handling Your Emotions When Encountering Death”
  1. Interesting. It must have been what FBI agents who helped set up the Oklahoma City bombing sting gone wrong (or did it?) told themselves. “We’re doing this for the greater good, many people will die but we will now be able to get greater security and control; the nation will be better off in the long run.”

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