The only formal training I had received in delivering a death anouncement was during my time at the Vermont Police Academy. One afternoon as we were standing at stony-faced attention outside the cafeteria, waiting for dinner, the janitor began vacuuming the corridor where we were lined up. We had been standing there for approximately five minutes with the vacuum roaring back and forth between us when quite suddenly it up and died. Normally, as we stood at attention waiting for our meals the TA's would strut up and down the line quizzing us about the various things we were supposed to be learning. There were various terms, statutes and core values also that we were supposed to have memorized and which they would also demand that we recite verbatim. An unsatisfactory or incomplete answer meant that you were going to be sweaty for dinner. When the vacuum died we had just received a block of instruction on CPR so our minders thought they would have some fun with us. They singled out another guy and demanded that he perform CPR on the broken vacuum cleaner. Giggles ran up and down the line as the poor guy struggled to blow on the handle only to be told that the mouth was down near the base. "YES, SIR!" He was all ate up. Who wouldn't be? Especially, with two TA's breathing down your kneck, stetson brims pressed into your forehead, and yelling abuse at you as you struggled to recall how to perform CPR. With horror I realized that they were calling me to help him save the vacuum cleaner. I didn't fare any better. I remember that in the confusion as I violently did chest compressions on the vacuum bag, dust began to fill the hallway, which caused the TA's to hastily declare the vacuum dead. After dinner they had us deliver a death anouncement to the other vacuums in the janitor's closet.
This was what I thought about as my cruiser nosed its way down Lincoln Avenue toward an address on the south side of town. The Brattleboro PD had called up to our department to inform us that a man, whose Mother lived in St Albans, had been found floating dead in the Connecticut River, and they wanted me to drive over to her house and break the news in person.
My cruiser stopped in front of an unassuming two story, white with green trim and a screened in front porch. I reached up over the visor and retrieved the envelope containing a neatly folded piece of letter-head on which I had typed the name of the officer in charge of the investigation and his contact information. Then donning my stetson I stepped from the cruiser and gamely walked up onto the porch.
That is such a strange moment- it's like the calm before a storm that you're in charge of unleashing. It's miserable. I did a gut check and knocked on the door. There were some words that needed to be spoken and, once uttered, I would be free to drive away from this woman's nightmare. I heard feet shuffling down the hall, and I steeled myself for what had to be done. The door opened to reveal an older woman, with thin graying hair and a cigarette smoking in her left hand.
I said what needed to be said in the kindest words I could muster. I asked her if I could call anyone to come be with her. I got her a glass of water from the kitchen. Strangely, even harder than breaking the news of her son's death was making my exit. How can you walk away from a woman who is crying, devastated, and alone? I wished she would take me up on my offer to call someone, anyone, to come be with her, but she claimed to have nobody. She eventually gave me my out by thanking me for coming and showing me the door.
"I'm truly sorry for your loss, Mam."
Those words rang hollow. How empty and unconvincing.
I got back in my cruiser and drove away knowing full well that if the Lord should tarry such nightmares will eventually become reality for us all.