That Moment When Understanding Occurs but Remains Unconfirmed

Why Understanding of Police, Public Safety, and Emergency Response is Mixed

First responder sits on porch steps, head down, deep in thought.

As all past and current law enforcement and emergency personnel can attest, we have been the last face many a dying person saw before embarking on the journey that follows human life. Death by natural cause, fulfilled by someone else, or an accident, it mattered not, for in the final moments, the police officer had profound awareness that change took place and an unexplained transition occurred. We can believe in a supreme being, who many call God; or with those who maintain this is our relationship to life experience, a stage of process, a moment in infinity. The belief, or not, is a personal matter; for what follows will bring understanding as we individually reach that stage.

I have reflected for years on the elderly woman severely injured in a traffic accident, west of Gorham, Maine, who suffered a traumatic head and facial injury. I knelt on the road with her, having placed a large dressing to the side of her face, holding onto her shaking body, and talking softly to her? Her final breath followed by a stillness; a Trooper and now deceased body, awaiting the arrival of additional emergency services. I felt a presence, was it real or imagination? Was I seeking explanation, a belief, to make sense of what I just experienced? To this moment I believe it was real, an edge of understanding as she was welcomed home from the lessons of this life. It was also personal to me, for there is no certainty or proof; just her eyes that seemed to understand, asking me to do the same, in the silence of it all.

The man who shot part of his face off in a suicide attempt, but lived for a time with an injury I was helpless to address, even though I taught “first aid” as called at that time at the Maine State Police Academy. He too was looking at me, a still inquiry of eye contact. What passed through his mind, was he aware that finality was approaching?  Did he, like the elderly woman, who saw a Maine State Trooper, as a sign of hope, or simply a stranger present as he descended into a realization that only he could recognize. Death and loss of the person’s conscious awareness, that we witnessed, but do not know with certainty, why we were present!

The person severely injured in a traffic accident, and three other young people lying deceased in the same wreckage. Did this Trooper’s arrival evoke fear, hope, emotion, simply one’s presence, or no recognition? The silence of the deceased, a brother and sister of the same age, both unblemished by impact, so still and no signs of life. The fourth person slumped in the back seat of the vehicle unmoving and in death. Were the three deceased near their fourth friend as moments passed by, what was I to do, what were the feelings experienced?  More helplessness of being incapable to do more, waiting for more help to arrive.  A dozen or more people standing in silence, looking, some curious, some crying, some looking frightened; all just there. While most cannot understand, those who regularly experience these similar situations, on reflection at the end of the day, do you have the same awareness, not understood, but a reality?

I did not know, for none of those individuals spoke, only that their eyes were looking at me, unblinking, and with an intensity that I still see and pause to consider.

One of my MSP Sergeants, assisting an injured person, who had been drinking excessively and crashed into a tree, saying to him the accident was preventable if alcohol were not in the mix.  And, the realization that the discussion no longer mattered as the injured had died. That Sergeant, a dedicated and caring person, remarked that the individual’s death occurred not with soothing words, but reality that it was unnecessary. Factual, but always with that lingering question of what was passing through the individual’s thinking, moments before death? Is there awareness of the present, or are other more focused transitions occurring?

A personal experience of lying in the road, unable to do more, with a brother Trooper looking at me with an intensity of concern, awaiting the approaching ambulance. What was he thinking at that moment seeing my injuries, and my looking back at him?  I never asked, and wished I had. Being one of the injured, placed in an ambulance with the driver of the other vehicle who was screaming and injured. The sounds that penetrated one’s mind as we sped to Maine Medical Center in Portland.  Later to learn the other vehicle had dashed into heavy traffic, preventing the chance to avoid the collision. Not being held contributory, has never erased the questions about that moment in our lives.  After a few years, I obtained a copy of the traffic accident report and the details of the collision became known, but not of the person whose life ended, and mine continues at present?  In all these years, I remain with minimal solace.

These and dozens of other illustrations of a very personal nature involving family, loved ones, and others who were strangers whose life ended, but moments of time! What was it all about, and why does it remain a permanent part of one’s thinking?  Encounters with dying and death, attended by a police officer, are seldom spoken about, as it is private, an event leaving questions and no assurances that provide needed answers. Yet, we are labeled as uncaring by some, whose transference, in retrospection, seems selfish, without compassion, understanding, or caring on their part!

My desire to write this is probably more for myself than to those whose disdain for police, reflect a negative attitude and whose basis seems selfish and without compassion. Reconciliation of events, finding oneself with another person at that moment of transition, does impact both, for presence at the death of a person, is personal.

Police engagement with people, seen through television shows, is acting to a script. The viewer is protected from sight, sound, smell, and emotions that remain present, some for a lifetime.  Reality is to see, hear, smell, touch, and yes, taste the environment of death. Blood at a crime scene or accident has an odor and is detected by taste as it permeates the air we breathe. A deceased body has an odor unlike any other, one you never acclimate to, for it is too disdainful to reconcile.

Sight illustrates irrationality far too often to what we witness. The carnage, level of deviance, and the extent of evil committed by other humans are often reminiscent of rage, for no rational person could inflict such harm.

The sense of hearing subjects the officer to contributory sounds and information that reflects the insanity of human thinking. The children under-nourished who weep from fear and defeated self-worth, improperly dressed, in a house devoid of heat in the winter, and the leering parent, drunk and threatening whose very presence is infuriating.

Physical contact can be assurance, self-defense, and application of helpfulness that stems bleeding removes someone from extreme danger, and a multitude of real conditions where the reactions represent needed application.  A severely beaten woman, whose significant other has attacked the officer, is screaming “kill him, kill him!” Later, you wonder, to whom did she refer? The touch that goes to self-defense in far too many instances illustrates a destroy mentality by the aggressor.  How is that rationality explained?

We hear and read, “the officer seemed not to care!”  His or her appearance may so reflect, but with the accumulation of encounters with deviance and witnessed harm, the immediate denial, and lies by people, are repetitive situations that become commonplace.  Deception is routine.  Facts, experience, witnesses, tangible observations and forensic evidence allow accurate and confident decisions to be made.  So much else emerges from the ranting of alcohol, drugs, mental illness, uncontrollable rage, ignorance, and other maladies that drive the ‘behaviors of chaos’, which a police officer routinely encounters.  Human dysfunction frequently outweighs rational understanding, in the occupation of police, first responders, corrections, and emergency response personnel.

Realization emerges that repeat offenders, or the one-time call for help, and other matters are not of lasting impression, and are not likely to change life outcomes.  However, they are common to the job and for the most part routine to the profession. Yet, the mystery of the dying person remains an unanswered question, where imagination is unable to arrive at a satisfactory response.

When the idea for this piece emerged, the faces of those with whom I shared their last minutes passed by, and I remember each, wondering where their energy went when it left the body. The stillness of the moment, and the exchange of expression that carried a depth of meaning that I cannot explain, but remains with me and continues to demonstrate it was of importance.

At this holiday season, my occupational brothers and sisters who will report for duty are there because of their choice. They provide for the willing and unwilling, they protect when possible, they fight the unruly and dangerous, and in the still of the night see the faces of victims, perpetrators, and the defenseless, and while each has a depth of meaning, it remains elusive.

Witness to death may allow insight to our existence and purpose. And, in quiet reflection, it presents numerous questions we seldom pursue. Society is more individual than collective, and in that designation, we confront what we represent.  As the Clint Eastwood, 1966 movie, “The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly” illustrated, rational explanation remains elusive.

To most who chose to read this, understanding will be difficult. But those who wear or have worn the uniform, explanation is not needed, for you live the reality, consciously and sub-consciously, sometimes to your own peril. Justification of what you do is not your responsibility, for duty exceeds the ability of most to know and understand. But you and your colleagues do, and that is enough.  Humanity is complex, and we are offered little depth of understanding, a series of lessons, many never penetrating the shell within which we exist, for if they did, it would be overwhelming.


Photo of Richard Lumb, PhD.
Richard C. Lumb, PhD.





Image credit: Public Domain