Trigger warning: Strong Emotional Content.
I ached to see him one more time. There would never be another opportunity, so the urge was strong and unrelenting.
In early, raw grief, it can be an almost irrational, desperate wish. I wanted to touch his hand, say goodbye although I knew his spirit had already left because I had felt it leave me the Friday he took his life. Before I got news.
Why didn’t I get to see my son one last time?
And this story begins at the end of my son’s life.
It’s not like on TV where police bring you into the mortuary to view the body which often looks pretty darn normal except for some Hollywood-added grayness. In fact, they told me we couldn’t see the body when we asked that first night. I wondered why not. I was told, “They had already identified the body and there was no need.”
I was too confused and grief-stricken to follow a single line of questioning because I had so many at once–creating an ocean’s worth of noise in my ears and head. My brain had already skipped to, “How could he leave us?” “Why am I such a crummy mother my child would kill himself?” “Didn’t he know we loved him?”
Not having been given the opportunity to see his body was like something else had been ripped from me without permission. Here’s the thing. You are at the worst possible moment of your life, and there are miles of paperwork to fill out, an obituary to write, last items to pick up, mysteries to solve, and decisions on funeral homes, remains, and what to do with those remains.
On top of that, we had just sold our home.
Someone, I can’t remember who, told me the name of their funeral home. But it wasn’t in writing. Whatever information entered my brain at that time met an egg beater that would scramble information into little scraps of confusion. Somehow what was said got translated into another funeral home name. I got the first letter right but that was it. I googled it but got the wrong place. That’s who I called, sure it was the right one.
What happened is that I ended up calling a funeral home that had essentially had sold their license to some outfit in Florida and now verging on the edge of scammy. I want to say that most funeral directors are honest, hard-working individuals who are invested in your family’s grief experience. They want to do a good job.
Once we paid the initial fee and filled out the reams of paperwork, this outfit picked up the body. After that, there was barely any communication on what would happen, when we would get the ashes or much of anything else. They went into a holding pattern and didn’t return calls or messages.
When my best friend Martha finally got hold of someone after days of unreturned calls, the guy who answered was flippant and annoyed. He was on a golf course in Florida and peeved we had the audacity to interrupt his precious game about something as trivial as my son’s dead body.
Long story short, it was days more of calling and not getting answers. Meanwhile, they made more appeals and requests for money and no explanation of what it was about and above what they had quoted. We then demanded they transfer his body to a more reputable funeral home.
But they held it hostage and demanded a ransom. Because of the paperwork, they had “legally abducted” the body but were hardly ethical in how they managed the process of the extra fees they were demanding.
Somehow my best friend Martha threatened with legal action and got the body transferred to the right funeral home but not without paying something. Neither of us remembers what was settled. I think it was a transport fee.
When the body was finally transferred to the right funeral home, they called and asked, “Do you want to see the body?” By now, it had been a week since his death by suicide. I didn’t know how to answer and Martha said, “Let’s not answer this right now,” and told the caller she’d call back. The new funeral director didn’t offer an opinion on the matter.
I called a friend. She had lost her child six months prior in a similar fashion. She told me, “Don’t do it. I wish I had never see him. I was not warned and I can’t unsee that image. Ever. It’s burned in my memory and it was horrifying. The body looked nothing like my son and I had a hard time identifying him.”
I took her advice.
Perhaps I could have seen or held his hand. But there had been a lot of time that had elapsed between his suicide and when he was found and then still more between the abduction of the body and when we got it back. And ‘time elapsed’ is an important factor in this consideration given his method of death. Truthfully, any funeral director should have advised me that the body was not going to look like my loved one. That perhaps in the state it was in, it was not viewable and it would be something I would always remember and not the last image I’d want to carry forward.
Since working with and interviewing funeral directors, I know the facts now but I didn’t know any of that then. And since owning this blog, many parents have told me chilling tales of trying to get a body transferred from one state to another, or one country to another and it’s very complicated. In most cases that’s not a funeral director’s fault, there are just a lot of laws involved in the process and different states have different procedures.
If you are faced with the decision of whether to see the body or not, I’m not telling you what we did is right for you. It might not be. You might not choose cremation for one. But do know that depending on the cause of death, that last image might not look anything like your loved one.
Ideally, your funeral director will advise you and set your expectations and offer an opinion that you should consider. Because what you might see might not meet your expectations and could cause undue stress in an already fragile and heartbreaking situation.