My year as the grim reaper’s intern

Grim statistics:

The person most likely to kill you is you. The second most likely person to kill you is someone who lives with you.

It’s 3 am and I’m an ordinary guy heading to a crime scene in one of L.A’s more dubious come-as-you are neighborhoods. The freeway is quiet and wide open. My old 1990 Toyota Corolla motors on as I psychologically prepare myself for what’s coming up. I slow down as flashing red lights brighten the dark, pre-dawn sky and bring an eerie carnival-like feel to the dirty streets.

The police are out in force, trying to secure a small island of safety with yellow tape and guns. They aren’t welcome here. it’s a neighborhood that’s largely lost the fight against crime. a place where no one flinches at the sound of gun fire. Where cops, when they come, come in force. They do their jobs and quickly leave.

I pull out my identification and sign a log book. “Park anywhere, the bored patrolman says as he moves the barrier. The street is ours. I double park, step out of my car and then head over to a police Sargent who is with a survivor, probably the victim’s mom. She is quiet and lost, overwhelmed.

I introduce myself. “My name is Richard and I’m with the mayors crisis response team. I was asked to come here and offer my assistance. Would you like me to stay?” She stares at me blankly and then nods her head. I ask her if she has called anyone. She hasn’t.

Everyone dies. But if you die in a terrible way, by accident or incident, first responders might call me or a fellow volunteer. We come to be with those who’ve been suddenly left behind: parents, wives, children. We come and try to keep them on track. Lessen their shock. Help them navigate through the first hours. We’re not social workers or psychologists, we’re just neighbors who care.

My goals are simple: ensure physical safety, activate the survivor’s support network, act as an on-scene liaison between the family and first responders, and provide information on psychological and legal resources. But I’m mainly there so they don’t have to be alone for those first numb hours after tragedy has struck.

Horror comes from underestimating reality, from a lack of imagination. it shocks you into a new awareness and out of an old one. I sit with the mom in silence as I have done before with other moms. I know how this will play out. We wait for the coroner. She will ask to see her son or daughter. The coroner will probably say no, attempting to lessen the trauma. Then, together we will watch as the body, her child, now wrapped in plastic like an object, is wheeled out on a metal gurney and loaded into a nondescript white city van.

This is an easy call. There are ones that are much harder, ones that become so horrible, so bizarre, that they seem unreal I won’t speak on those. There are also coincidences: suicide patterns — a death every Tuesday at 9 pm for weeks. Also, deaths occurring at the same location year after year. One time I responded to a call where an old woman had somehow fell and drowned in a shallow fish pond in the back yard. It had maybe six inches of water in it. The name of the street–deep water drive.

The work raises your awareness of death. Brings you closer to the daily body count. In L.A, if there hasn’t been a homicide for three days, it makes the papers. The last time it happened, the no-homicide streak was broken when a man was shot in front of his 12-year-old son. They were waiting in their car to buy a phone from someone they contacted through craigslist. The hardest calls to make are for dead children, especially when the call comes and the child is still alive but is expected to pass away. We often accompany the police or doctor when they go into the waiting room and give the bad news. Reactions vary, we are taught to expect anything and to stand near a door.

So what did I learn after a year of these experiences? When every story had an unhappy ending? I learned that human caring could be potent medicine. That being with someone even a stranger, sometimes not even saying a word, can bring comfort.


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