A doctor speaks bluntly about untimely death

Dr. Louis M. Profeta (his website is here) penned an angry, yet thought-provoking article earlier this month, titled “I’ll Look at Your Facebook Profile Before I Tell Your Mother You’re Dead“.

It kind of keeps me human. You see, I’m about to change their lives — your mom and dad, that is. In about five minutes, they will never be the same, they will never be happy again. Right now, to be honest, you’re just a nameless dead body that feels like a wet bag of newspapers that we have been pounding on, sticking IV lines and tubes and needles in, trying desperately to save you. There’s no motion, no life, nothing to tell me you once had dreams or aspirations. I owe it to them to learn just a bit about you before I go in.

. . .

Maybe you were texting instead of watching the road, or you were drunk when you should have Ubered. Perhaps you snorted heroin or Xanax for the first time or a line of coke, tried meth or popped a Vicodin at the campus party and did a couple shots. Maybe you just rode your bike without a helmet or didn’t heed your parents’ warning when they asked you not to hang out with that “friend,” or to be more cautious when coming to a four-way stop. Maybe you just gave up.

Maybe it was just your time, but chances are . . . it wasn’t.

So I pick up your faded picture of your driver’s license and click on my iPhone, flip to Facebook and search your name.

. . .

You’re kind of lucky that you don’t have to see it. Dad screaming your name over and over, mom pulling her hair out, curled up on the floor with her hand over her head as if she’s trying to protect herself from unseen blows.

I check your Facebook page before I tell them you’re dead because it reminds me that I am talking about a person, someone they love—it quiets the voice in my head that is screaming at you right now shouting: “You mother ******, how could you do this to them, to people you are supposed to love!”

There’s more at the link.  You should read the whole thing.

As a pastor, I had to do this more than once . . . far too many times, in fact, although by no means as often as an emergency room physician like Dr. Profeta.

I remember a car driven by a teenager who’d just got her license.  To celebrate, she took three of her girlfriends for a ride one evening.  She turned out of the side road where all their families lived, onto a main road that would take them to a local hangout for ice cream . . . and was T-boned by a fully loaded truck that she didn’t notice, and that couldn’t turn or stop in time to avoid them.  All four girls were killed.

How can anyone bring any meaningful comfort to four sets of shocked, stunned, almost hysterical parents (not to mention the dead girls’ siblings) who’ve just had the bottom knocked out from under their worlds?  Anyone who tries to peddle pious platitudes in such a situation deserves to have his teeth knocked out.  It wasn’t “God’s will” at all – it was a stupid human mistake, from an otherwise nice, normal teenage girl, that killed her and three of her best friends.  Sometimes all one can do is follow St. Paul’s advice:  “Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep“.  Pain such as that can only be shared.  It can’t be wished or counseled away.  Only tears make sense at such a time, until some semblance of sanity can return . . . and for some of their families, it never did fully return.  I know.  I knew them all.

Friends, if you have young people in your family, or know them, or work with them, please try to get them to read Dr. Profeta’s article.  If it makes them think, it might save their lives . . . and save their families a grief that’s too deep for words to ever describe it.



  1. It's worse when the deceased is an innocent victim – a pedestrian struck by a drunk or distracted driver , a little kid caught in the middle of a drive-by shooting , etc ….

  2. Losing a child is an unbelievable hurt…
    I go look at my daughters facebook page still so I guess facebook does have some value over it's cost to society.
    I'd never thought of it like that before….

  3. “How can anyone bring any meaningful comfort to four sets of shocked, stunned, almost hysterical parents (not to mention the dead girls' siblings) who've just had the bottom knocked out from under their worlds? ”

    You can’t, Peter, nor can you be expected to. All you can do is trust in the Spirit to bring some comfort to all.

  4. You and the good doctor are right, life is never the same after your child dies. And the cause makes little difference; I suppose it might be 'easier' if it were health-related. But my observations say it just as devastating as losing your child from the violent acts of someone else.

  5. It's happily rarer than people imagine, even in knife-and-gun-club trauma centers, but Death visits the ER.

    Nobody's death comes easy, even the gang-banger who brought a knife to a gun fight, as his mother sobs agonal soul-shaking cries to the heavens. It's not my job to pass judgment, nor torture the living with the final sins of the dead. They'll be able to do that themselves anyways, and for months, soon enough.

    I hate death with a passion when early, or some unbidden surprise visitor, and only when the awardee has lived at least their threescore and ten can I see it as a transition, while for only those dying in terminal pain is it the truly welcome arrival of a long wished-for friend.

    The sudden, random, unexpected variety is waste beyond explanation, and the recipient of my quiet rage. Like Captain Kirk, I don't believe in the Kobayashi Maru scenario, and the ones you couldn't pull back are the hardest to bear, and the ones you remember long after the others happily fade from memory.

    In Gene Hackman's line in Uncommon Valor, some faces never leave your mind's eye, but you make friends with them. Not to do so would drive anyone mad.

    This very morning I was happy to be working on a critical patient, because it kept me too busy to deal with the one right next door, dying with no help nor hindrance from me, despite the earnest efforts of 20 others, and I was glad to be able to let others focus on that problem while I got my guy – awake, alert, and very much alive – ready for the cath lab and then ICU. It could have just as easily been the other way around.

    I understand and pity the doctors, because they always get to make the notification, generally face-to-face, and they try to keep it simple and as subtle as a scalpel slicing your throat: "Your xxxx is dead. We tried everything we could. I'm very sorry for your loss."
    And then understandably try to get back to work on the living, because there are always more live patients to see.

    Dealing with the new patients in the room, the next of kin, family, friends, coroner, mortuary, etc., and calling to tell those unknowing to come in, but safely, and without revealing news over the phone, falls back on the nurse responsible for the man or woman or child they'll eventually have to disrobe, clean up, make less fearsome, and remove pads and tape, while leaving tubes and IVs and such in place, in case the coroner takes the case. Covering the patient for modesty, removing blood and worse; and then, after all the sobs are finally spent, zipping them exactly as naked as the day they entered the world into their final sleeping bag for that trip to the Eternal Care Unit. Tag on the toe, tag on the zipper, hands crossed, and please God, in the couple of hours' grace before rigor mortis starts to stiffen limbs and make it impossible to put grandma or auntie or son Jack into the bag without difficulty, and no limbs extended to other points of the compass than due south.

  6. (cont.)
    I've bagged some dozens, of all ages. Some mine, some as a favor to an overwhelmed co-worker. Gently and respectfully, sometimes with help, sometimes alone.

    Mindful of the fact that fluids accumulate, muscles relax, and fluids follow gravity. Bad enough to handle the dead without getting slimed by them after their departure. Worst of all, the traumas, some where they've cut them open to reach the heart and stimulate it by hand, often to find the offending missile has penetrated the bullseye, and rendered further efforts more than futile, and sometimes after the patient has been sawn virtually in half from each side, with only the spine maintaining the semblance of a whole person.

    I don't know what others do, but I tell you freely and honestly, I talk to them as if they were still there as they're being prepped for that last gurney ride. Maybe they still are there, or nearby, in some way known but to God. I have no idea how soon the bus gets there afterwards, or how quick the departure occurs. They may even still be alive inside there, seeing and hearing, trapped inside the body for a minute of few as things fade away after everything fails. It's simple respect for them afterwards, and it helps me to deal with what I'm doing. Quietly, but sincerely, knowing this is as close as I'll ever be to the doorway they've just entered until it's my turn to be zipped into the bag. They get the same compassion they'd merit if they were still breathing, because they're not carcasses.
    Not yet.

    I'd happily never have done it, but if not me, who? At least I know it'll be done properly, and with what measure of dignity I can accord someone who probably woke that day with no idea it would be their last.

    I have my own suspicions as to what happens to them afterwards, but no one truly knows, nor but seldom is in any great hurry to find out, the trip being always a one-way turnstile.

    At this point in my life, I still agree with the man who, when asked where he wanted to be when died, answered quite sincerely, "Somewhere else."

  7. Just a quick note, before this scrolls off the bottom of the main page.

    We've had to face this twice, in relatively quick succession. It is not true that , or not necessarily true, that one will never be happy again. It takes a while, but there comes a time eventually when it no longer dominates your life.

    To say it "wasn't God's will" is itself a pious platitude. Providence in this world can be hard.

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