Among the most challenging events law enforcement officers must manage are those involving death. While some level of distance can be achieved between a victim’s death and the officer’s personal life, officers are aware that, for the victim’s family and friends, no such distance is possible. The death of their loved one will be experienced and remembered as one of the most harrowing moments of their lives.
The Maine Warden Service, like any law enforcement agency, handles many such events. Because Maine’s game wardens empathized with the pain and difficulty experienced by victims’ families and wanted to be able to offer a dedicated source of comfort and support to them, they created the Maine Warden Service Chaplain’s position in 2000. In 2001, Reverend Kate Braestrup became the chaplain, whose primary duties include giving on-scene support to civilians during search and rescue and recovery operations.
The Maine Warden Service responds to hundreds of calls for search and rescue each year. The incident commander will request the chaplain on those occasions where he is fairly certain the outcome will include a fatality. Through considerable hands-on experience, Maine’s game wardens and the chaplain have developed their somewhat unusual approach to supporting grieving families at the scenes of fatal incidents. If they choose to do so, the officers encourage mourners to see and touch the bodies of their loved ones soon after these have been recovered.
The Maine Warden Service believes that this approach represents a significant improvement in the usual practice of law enforcement and other first responders because it provides for a more positive experience for mourners. Additionally, this approach, if adapted and replicated by other agencies, could benefit both the citizens they serve and the agencies themselves.
In 1996, Maine State Trooper James Andrew Griffith was killed in a motor vehicle accident while on patrol. Upon being notified of her husband’s death, his widow asked to be brought to the scene of the accident so that she could see and touch her husband’s body.
Following the practice ubiquitous in policing and first-responder agencies then and now, her request was gently, firmly, and automatically refused. Trooper Griffith’s body was taken from the scene directly to the Medical Examiner’s office in Augusta, Maine. After two days, it was brought to the funeral home. By this time, Griffith’s widow was insisting that she wanted to bathe, dress, and care for her husband’s body herself. The State Police Command staff reluctantly agreed, but detailed two sergeants and a trooper to accompany the widow to the funeral home.
Though they approached this task with considerable apprehension, all three law enforcement officers afterward agreed that the afternoon they spent together, caring for the body of their friend and colleague and helping to dress him in his Class A uniform, was a very positive experience. Out of all the official obsequies and necessary rituals of that time, this became a comforting, even “happy” memory.
There is nothing law enforcement officers, first responders, or chaplains can do that will transform the sudden death of a loved one into a good thing. However, because death and loss are universal experiences, officers can approach fatal incidents with the confidence that mourners know how to mourn. Given the appropriate support, nearly all mourners will be able to absorb the emotional impact of a loss and eventually create meaning or find a purpose from their pain.
This confidence informs the practice of Maine game wardens when it comes to supporting the families of citizens and visitors who have met with calamity in Maine’s woods and waters.
In the more than 12 years since Kate Braestrup started her service as chaplain to the Maine Warden Service, bodies have been viewed, embraced, and wept over by family members beneath the trees, amid tall grass, and on the shores of lakes and rivers. Contrary to common misconceptions, these scenes are not chaotic or undignified, nor are they overly prolonged. The usual time family members spend directly interacting with the body seldom (if ever) exceeds 20 minutes. The feedback the department has received from the families who have chosen to encounter their loved ones’ bodies in this method has been uniformly positive.
Case Study: Rangeley Lake
On a cold, snowy night at the close of 2012, four citizens lost their lives when their snowmobiles were driven off the ice and plunged into open water while crossing a lake in Western Maine.
The Maine Warden Service recovered the body of the first victim the following morning, along with sufficient evidence to be able to inform the families of the remaining victims that their loved ones were almost certainly dead. Recovering the bodies of Glen Henderson, his cousin Ken Henderson, and their friend John Spencer would prove to be one of the most difficult, prolonged, and resource-intensive operations ever undertaken by the Maine Warden Service. At last, in May of 2013, all three were found and retrieved after spending more than five months underwater. Because this situation required the Maine Warden Service to interact with three families over nearly half a year, it can serve as an illustration of virtually every aspect of the agency’s approach to fatal incidents.1
Identifying the Primary Mourner
A necessary task following any fatal incident is that of identifying the primary mourner in each family group. Most often the legal spouse, parent or adult child of the victim, or a significant other (for example, a live-in girlfriend) may be recognized and unofficially designated as the primary mourner by other family members. (When in doubt, officers can go by the “Folded Flag” rule: If this was a military funeral, to whom would the folded flag be given?)
At the Rangeley Lake incident, despite encountering some of the complications modern family arrangements often entail, Lieutenant Adam was able to identify the wives of two of the victims and the parent of the third as the primary mourners. These individuals became the focus of briefings and were given some control over whether and when other family members and friends would be included in family activities at the scene. As there was little doubt that the three men were deceased, the conversation about whether and how the primary mourners would like to see a loved one’s body was initiated as early as possible.
Asking the Question
The chaplain began with a simple question: “Once we have made the recovery, when would you like to see your loved one’s body?” The general rule is that, when the chaplain or officer asks that question, the answer can be trusted.
Some people will immediately reply, “I don’t want to see his body!” Others may say, “Well, I don’t want to see him, but his sons might wish to.” No matter what the answer is, it is important to honor and affirm the choice. Experience has taught the Maine game wardens that most mourners answer the way the missing snowmobilers’ loved ones did: All three wanted to see the bodies as soon as possible.
In Rangeley, the subject was broached on the first full day of searching, which took place in early January. Over the following months, as additional search operations using side-screen sonar and the Maine Warden Service’s remote-operated underwater vehicle discovered and photographed the snowmobiles and other evidence, family members were encouraged to return to the scene, and when search operations were suspended pending an improvement in weather conditions, the primary mourners were contacted weekly by both the incident commander and the chaplain, giving them ample opportunity to second-guess their decisions. None changed their minds.
Why not wait for mourners to bring up the subject on their own? Of course, some people are sufficiently experienced or confident enough to do just that, but most are amateurs when it comes to a sudden, unexpected loss. A bereaved parent may not know that it is common, natural, and normal to want to see the child’s body. A spouse may be intimidated by the presence of uniforms, or just worried about looking “weird,” especially in front of strangers. People may not realize that they have any choice in the matter at all.
Therefore, simply by asking the question, “When do you want to see the body?” at least some measure of power and control is granted to the mourners over what is, for them, an intimate personal tragedy.
Once the Recovery Is Made
When the family of the missing snowmobilers said that they wished to see the bodies as soon as possible after these were recovered, the chaplain asked permission to guide the process.
“There’s a practice we’ve developed that seems to work well,” the chaplain explained. “With your permission, I will see his body first. Then I will come back and let you know what condition it is in, so you can have the information you need to decide how you want to proceed.”
When most people see a dead body, it is in a hospital or funeral home. A body that has just been recovered from a wrecked vehicle or from underwater will not look the same. The idea isn’t to discourage mourners, but to let them know what to expect, and thus, empower them to make their own decisions.
In Rangeley, the chaplain was present on the dive boat when each of the three bodies was recovered. Each body was examined deliberately, with note being taken of as many details as possible, along with explanations (or possible explanations) for what was observed.
Back on land, this information was given to the family clearly and gently, with explanations for the body’s position and odor, and for such evident phenomena as the de-gloving of skin on hands and face. The families would first see the bodies while these were still aboard the dive boat. The bodies would be contained within closed white body bags. Mourners would have complete control over how closely they approached the bodies, and whether and when a body bag would be unzipped.
“The wardens and I can stay with you the whole time,” the chaplain reassured them. “But if you’d like to be alone with your loved one, we can all pull back.”
When the primary mourners and the family members they had invited to come with them had been brought to the boat, they did what human beings will naturally do when confronted by the reality of a loved one’s death: they cried.
They touched and patted the body through the body bag. Each asked for the bag to be opened, and for the snowmobile helmet visors to be lifted. Each talked to the body and to each other. They cried some more. They groomed their loved one’s body, symbolically at least, by wiping away some of the mud. These behaviors—weeping, talking to the body, grooming the body—were exhibited by all three mourners and their families—and are commonly observed in similar encounters overseen by the agency.
Game wardens were available to provide assistance (for example to a family member who needed help maneuvering her walker) and to answer any questions put to them. Where appropriate, they offered verbal affirmations, such as “You’re very brave,” or “You obviously loved your son very much.” Otherwise, they simply remained calmly, confidently, and quietly present.
When the mourners were finished—again, within 20 minutes—they allowed the wardens to help them back to their vehicles.
When interviewed approximately six months after her husband’s body was recovered, one of the widows clearly remembered her experience positively, saying, “I have no regrets. Honestly, I didn’t know if I would be able to do it, but I am so glad I did. My in-laws and I had all the time we needed to do what we needed to do and say what we needed to say. It was greatly appreciated. Thank you for your efforts and for your compassion.”2
This, too, members of the Maine Warden Service have grown accustomed to thinking of as normal—a sense of completion and closure for the mourner and gratitude toward the officers for granting this safe, loving, human experience.
When Seeing the Body Is Impossible
What if seeing the body is not possible? There may indeed be circumstances under which the evidentiary value of the body and its disposition would be unacceptably compromised by allowing civilians to touch or see it before investigators and the medical examiner have completed their processes. Or, the body may be inaccessible to the family because the death occurred in a remote place; the victim’s family lives too far away to make traveling to the scene feasible; or the primary mourner is incapacitated (e.g., was injured in the same accident that killed the victim).
Maine’s Game Wardens are encouraged to approach these situations with flexibility and creativity. They consider what can be offered in lieu of viewing the body. For example, the chaplain or warden can offer to say a prayer or blessing for the body in situ, to bring a rosary or other religious object to put in the body bag as a substitute for their presence, or even offer something as simple as understanding, sympathy, and human solidarity, “I’m sorry you can’t go to him. If it was my son, I’d want to see him now, too. But I’ll take good care of your loved one. I will keep him company for you.”
It’s not always possible to do what the victim’s family wants, but there are ways to meet a family’s human need to provide care and express love for the one they have lost, and even just making the effort communicates powerfully to the survivors of a tragedy.
Reasons Law Enforcement Officers and Other First Responders Routinely Deny Permission to See the Body
“My first reaction to the idea was ‘absolutely not!’” A 23-year veteran police officer admits. “My training is all about control of the evidence, control of the scene. When I realized the parents were going to see the body at the scene, I was very skeptical. We never did that in any agency I’ve worked for.”3
Concern about control of evidence, especially in cases of murder or other homicide, generally comes first on the list of reasons police officers provide, even though, as a Maine State Police detective reluctantly confessed, “the vast majority of the deaths we respond to are quickly determined to be non-felonious.”4
The next reason is often a stated wish to protect mourners from the lasting psychological harm presumed to result from such a sight. The funeral home industry has energetically promulgated the notion that seeing a loved one’s body before the cosmetic ministrations of a mortician have been applied, inevitably results in a uniquely powerful “final image” that causes lasting trauma.
Contradicting this notion is the fact that, until very recently in human history, family members had no choice but to retrieve, prepare, and bury the bodies of their relatives themselves.
During the Civil War, the ability to transport the bodies of soldiers from the battlefield back to their home towns by trains led to advances in embalming methods and an explosive wartime growth in the number of professional embalmers. When the war ended, these sought to create new markets for their skills by persuading ordinary people that dealing with the dead was something best left entirely, if expensively, to professionals. While modern, urbanized life certainly requires the facilities of funeral homes, it is unreasonable to assume that modern human beings have somehow grown incapable of handling experiences that were part of life for many thousands of years.
“Let’s be honest: We’re not really protecting them,” Major Chris Cloutier of the Maine Warden Service avers. “The truth is that most law enforcement officers don’t want to have to witness the grief of the mother whose child has died or the widow embracing her husband’s body. So we try not to let it happen in front of us.”5
Self-protection from vicarious grief is an understandable motive for preventing a family member from seeing a body. Human beings are empathetic creatures—seeing pain makes us feel pain, and nobody likes pain.
Still, law enforcement officers enter their profession because they seek to protect and serve others. If a family is not helped, and may even be harmed by their “protection,” then it is the practice, not the underlying motivation, that needs to change.
It May Be Better for Us, Too
After being present at the scene when the Warden Service recovered the body of a 17-year-old drowning victim, the 23-year veteran police officer quoted earlier had this to say about watching the parents grieve over their son’s body: “I thought it was going to be horrible, but it wasn’t. I liked the way the Warden Service handled it. It was obvious when the parents came back from being with their son’s body that they were relieved, even visibly ‘lighter.’ They took care of their boy, and they had some closure. They were definitely better off for having done it.”6
To this, he added another pleasant surprise. “Neither I nor any of my colleagues experienced negative results afterward. In fact, it was good for me, too. I had closure because they had closure.”7
Death is bigger than all of us. Losing someone you love hurts. Chaplains, law enforcement officers, or other first responders can’t subtract pain. Indeed, a family’s grief and pain are a continuation of their relationship with the person they knew and loved. Law enforcement has neither the power, nor the right, to control or diminish that grief and pain. However, officers can offer their strength in a time of weakness, soften fear with their confidence, and add love. With help, a mourner can look back and remember the most painful and difficult moment of his or her life as a moment of strength and courage, as well as sorrow, a moment of great love, as well as loss. ♦
1 Amy Calder, “Weather Blamed in Deaths of Experienced Outdoorsmen Snowmobiling on Rangeley Lake,” centralmaine.com, January 5, 2014, www.centralmaine.com/2014/01/05/weather_blamed_in_deaths_of_experienced_outdoorsmen_snowmobiling_on_rangeley_lake (accessed November 20, 2014).
2 Caroline Henderson, interview with author, March 2, 1014.
3 Ronald Young (chief, Damariscotta, ME, Police Department), interview with author, 2014.
4 Christopher Coleman (lieutenant, Maine State Police), interview with author, February 26, 2014
5 Chris Cloutier (major, Maine Warden Service), interview with author, February 26, 2014.
6 Ronald Young, interview with author, 2014.
Please cite as:
Kevin Adam and Kate Braestrup, “Beyond Death Notification: On-Scene Bereavement Support Practices of the Maine Warden Service,” The Police Chief 81 (December 2014): web only.