by Robert J. Lanz LCSW
I got a few emails last week about the Complaint Letter story. I guess maybe I did deserve some feedback from someone. I had tried everything in my extensive bag of tricks and nothing seemed to work and maybe I did give up too soon. Maybe I was protecting myself from the hammering I took. In any case, thanks for your feedback. I moved this next story up a few weeks because it was related. I’m sure it will get some feedback too.
Sorry, I don’t make reality I just have to deal with it.
Big black guys scare me. Big black guys scare a lot of people including one of the guys who thinks he’s one of their leaders, Jesse Jackson, who ran away from a group of them like a sissy in a grave yard when he thought they were after him. And they don’t just scare old guys and white guys; they really scare each other- on purpose. It probably sounds like racial profiling but the black community seems to have more of a problem with interpersonal violence that other communities and other than the police, no one is more likely to have to deal with the aftermath than we are. If you can’t accept that, ask somebody in the black community and if the reality is too difficult to grasp, you can just stop reading here and go on with your denial and I can go on with my perceptions.
Some people think that BBGs have no redeeming qualities and I’ve been on that list myself in the past. After being hit, kicked, struck with chairs and called a white motherfucker, fucking white pig, cracker, peckerwood, honky fucker and white devil at least a hundred times, I’m more than a little skewed on the issues of violent street gang behavior in the black community and how it bleeds over into the ER when there are the resultant injuries. Whenever a black gunshot victim, or stabbing victim or beating victim comes to the ER most of us brace for a worse than usual experience with the crowd that inevitably follows. So the night they brought a near dead BBG to the ER we knew there was going to be some major disturbances accompanying the patient. Very major disturbances.
Every culture has its way of dealing with death and as far as I’m concerned, that’s all right with me as long as further violence is not a part of the equation, especially as it relates directly to me or my staff. Of those staff members who may be likely candidates for spillover personal violence, the social worker is the only person who has the job of working directly with the family when there is the likelihood of death. Every one else can disappear when their part of patient care is over whether that is death or cure. The nurse can go and take care of another patient and so can the doctor. The phlebotomist can go and draw blood somewhere else and the x-ray tech can disappear into his own little dark zone. But the SW has to stay until the survivors are past the worst part of grieving and beginning to return to their previous level of functioning, or at least be willing to go home. That may take a lot of energy and a lot of time in the danger zone and the person on duty who has to be in that situation is a prime candidate for abuse of some kind. That’s been me on several occasions and because of it, I had bad feelings about tonight’s death- real bad.
Usually, when someone is in the process of dying, I have an opportunity to shuttle back and forth between the family and the medical staff giving increasingly sad information about the probable outcome. During that time, even as the news is getting worse, I can get to know the family and friends and let them get to know me a little. I’m not some robot messenger who can do this kind of work without feeling any of their grief and I want them to realize we are all humans too and that death, even for someone we may not like, effects us.
Whatever happened before the dying guy got to the emergency department doesn’t matter now; only the family’s crisis is of concern to me and I try to make that clear. Usually I can do OK with the task and I can form alliances and bonds with the key people in the group. But when I don’t, it gets scary and for me there’s nothing scarier than being in a room full of BBGs I haven’t had a chance to form a relationship with, whom I don’t know at least one of from a previous death scene, who don’t care a damn about me, the staff or the hospital. I hate to be in a room full of guys so angry they would burn down the place that may have to save their lives some time, maybe even that same night. I hate to be the one to have to tell that group of guys that someone they loved couldn’t be saved. He’s dead. How I hate that word. The word that brings an end to hope- even false hope. The word that signals a change in everyone’s life from that moment on. The word that spins off the end of this event and onto another one that may have a rival gang in the same room hearing the same news, maybe on the same night and if I’m really unlucky, on my shift.
The natural reluctance to say the “D” word is shared by my colleagues and it’s common to have hospital security or even the real police, with guns, stand by to prevent problems when the “D” word is coming. Nobody wants to be at the vortex of the negative energy that emanates from the finality of “He couldn’t be saved. He died.”
The BBG gangster that came tonight had been killed by another BBG in an anticipated act of street violence. Anticipated as in this is the life style they have chosen and they just take turns being victim and shooters. Tonight the victim happened to be a fatality so there was a lot of cops in the ER milling around waiting for the homicide detectives to come down and start the investigation that would lead to another legal dead end in which everybody knew who the shooter was but nobody could prove it. Sooner or later the shooter would get the informal death penalty of the streets or at least a significant wounding and the whole deal would start over again. Anyway, with all the cops around the BBGs didn’t seem quite so intimidating and I felt safer than I otherwise might.
For a violent death, the aftermath turned out to be relatively peaceful: the parents were sad and tearful but not surprised. The other family members were supportive, and, crying together, they went to view the body of the BBG while the homicide detectives watched because the body was now evidence and they didn’t want anybody messing it up. After paying their last respects the family left, then the cops left and the detectives left and I went into my office thinking the coroner would be down soon and this would be over. I put my feet up on the desk and closed my eyes. I took the deep breaths I had learned from one of the rehab social workers that were supposed to bring calm and relaxation. It was just starting to work when my beeper went off. I called the number flashing on the little screen and heard the words I knew were coming.
“The guy who died has some friends out here. Lots of them. They don’t know he’s dead yet.”
It was late and things had become quiet in the ER.
“Is there anyone else in the waiting room?” I was afraid to bring them into the conference room where I usually broke bad news to big groups. With this big group I sure as hell didn’t want to be in a closed space telling twenty gangster guys their friend was dead.
“No. Just them.”
“Tell them I’ll be right out.”
My gut was telling me to be right out. Right out the back door, right out of the parking lot and on the freeway in the direction of home, out of the danger zone I was honor bound to enter. Does anyone else in the world have a job like this?
I called up the homicide detectives and told them what was up.
“We already have the shooter Bob so as far as we’re concerned evidence probably isn’t going to be an issue. Pretty straight up shooting. As for the guys in the waiting room, use you’re own judgment. You’re there and we’re not.”
I went and looked into the waiting room and there they were. Pretty scary group. All the other patients and families had drifted outside so other than the BBG’s it was a pretty lonely place out there. A couple of cops I knew came in through the ambulance entrance to take a report on a traffic accident. Because I knew them, I could ask for help on something that wasn’t related to why they were there, so I did.
“Could you guys sort of take a cruise through the waiting room? You don’t have to do anything. I just want those guys to know there are real cops here. Real cops with real guns.”
“No problem Bob.”
They came back a couple minutes later and I thanked them.
“Don’t thank us Bob. If something happens we won’t be much help just because we’re cops with guns. Half of them probably have guns too.”
I looked past them, through the bulletproof glass partition, into the waiting room. Major BBGs- about twenty of them, the smallest one about my size, 5’11”, 195 pounds. I’m talking big BBGs. If somebody told me the dead guy had come to town with a professional football team and all the other players were now in the waiting room it would have been believable. Great big BBGs. When I opened the door, the last clear thought I had was that this had never come up in graduate school. I could die during this test of my social work skills and nobody had ever trained me for this situation. But then again, I guess they did. I was taught to treat everyone with dignity and I was taught to hold the ethics of my profession in high esteem. I was taught to do the right thing, even if it seemed like the wrong crowd. As I looked out into the faces of the BBGs in the waiting room, definitely the wrong crowd, I was thinking. They probably look just like the guy who shot and killed their friend.
Fearlessly, (well not fearlessly, bravely might be a better word- brave because I was terrified but did it anyway) I walked into the center of the crowd and asked, “Are all of you friends with Mr. J.?”
They nodded. They came closer. They surrounded me.
“I’m sorry to tell you but we couldn’t save Mr. J. We did everything we could but he was too injured. I’m sorry, he died.”
As the “D” word slipped from my lips I felt my knees get weak. My heart was racing. I was getting an adrenaline headache. ”
I was there when he died. I know he wasn’t in any pain. It was a peaceful passing.”
They yelled. They cursed. They threatened retaliation. They spoke deeply about the injustices of life. Some walked outside, some hit the wall and kicked chairs, and some got glassy eyed and just stood there. I did too. Nobody had done anything to me yet and after a minute or so I didn’t think they were going to and then I wasn’t scared any more. Whatever these guys had done before this moment, and I’m sure there was plenty, didn’t matter now. What did matter was that I was in the middle of a group of people who had just lost a friend and they needed to grieve same as anybody else and I was the guy that was there to help them.
I brought them into the dead guy’s room, two at time, and they said their good-byes. Some cried openly and some talked about him. Some talked to him and some kissed him. Some hugged each other and promised to do better in life. Nobody scared me. Nobody called me names except for a couple of guys who called me “Sir”. Everybody was orderly and kind and sad and for some reason they seemed to get smaller as the night went on. I never did figure out who had the guns.
Grief, expressed as grief, is a profound experience. I am always caught up in it when it happens around me, even with total strangers. Their pain of loss affects me deeply- it reminds me of the pain of my own losses and scares me about my future losses by reminding me how transient life is. Tonight that transience was glaringly obvious in the room full of BBGs. I was relieved they were up for the true grief experience, because if they weren’t, someone would suffer. Maybe them. Maybe me. Maybe the guy who brought all this on by shooting Mr. J.