Unwanted Witness to an Instant Death

The other day Janna and I were walking around Journal Square. I was looking one way and Janna another when she saw what I missed: A young woman stepping into the street in the middle of traffic.

Janna said an accelerating car hit the woman directly on her hipbone and, even though Janna was across the street, she remembers the accident in slow motion. The car skidded to avoid the woman. The woman was hit on the hip.

Rubber smoke curled up from the asphalt. Still on her feet, the woman was slammed into a parked van and then, for an instant, she seemed to recover. Then she froze. Her face became grey and the light left her body. She was dead. Her arms dropped to her sides. She fell. Her head broke her fall. We later learned the young woman stepped into the middle of the street against a light but with the ascension of a curve in the street where cars naturally increase speed to beat the incline.

The accident was the woman’s fault, not the driver’s, and no one was charged with a crime or provided a speeding ticket. Janna said watching someone in the instant of an unexpected and unintended death is something she never wants to see again.

The look on the woman’s face as she died was not one of piety or peace or fear — it was one of complete surprise and unfocused confusion: She never knew what hit her. Janna’s experience makes me wonder about other shattering events we witness – without our foreknowledge or permission — and how those experiences must shape us into what we will become because watching the light leave someone only brings home the reality that the breath of life is shallow and fleeting.

We expect the old and sickly to die. We expect warriors on a battlefield to die. We do not expect to witness the live, slow-motion, killing of a young woman on a Jersey City street as the Sunday morning dawns.

23 comments

  • My heart goes out to Janna – and to those that this young woman left behind.
    I hope with time her vision fades and no longer plays out so vividly in her mind.
    The death of my son (a nine week old baby at the time) some 23 years ago still plays on my mind – but the visuals are less clear than they used to be – maybe time and emotion and subsequent events have helped cloud those from haunting me as much as they did.
    I am sure witnessing events such as this do shape us – those that witnessed and were part of the Dunblane Massacre suffered horribly. As this article shows http://www.burnsurvivorsttw.org/articles/ptsd1.html

    We live in an age when such events seem to occur with ever-increasing frequency. Not a single day passes without a calamity affecting some part of the planet, and pictures of these events are immediately flashed to our TV screens and our newspapers. The disadvantage of having such an efficient and prompt news service is that everyone becomes better acquainted with the dangers life may have in store. We are all more traumatically cognisant.
    Apart from headline-making disasters, there are other sources of trauma. All around, people become victims of crime and accidents, quite often with devastating consequences. Many of these events go unnoticed except for the few people who have been directly affected by such ordeals, but many of the victims may later suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
    PTSD results when a person has been exposed to an event which is outside the range of normal human experience: an event which would markedly distress almost anyone. It is the normal human response to an abnormal situation. The experience could be a serious threat to life. It could be a serious threat or actual harm to one’s children, partner or other close relative or friend. It could be the sudden destruction of one’s home or community, or seeing another person who has recently been seriously injured or killed as the result of either an accident or physical violence.

    http://www.healthyplace.com/COMMUNITIES/Anxiety/ptsd.asp takes a look at the individual circumstance that can affect you – as opposed to *disasters* where many are involved.

    PTSD can occur at any age, from childhood to old age and traumatic stress can be cumulative over a lifetime. Responses to trauma include feelings of intense fear, helplessness, and/or horror. There are three types of generally recognized stressors:
    * Threatened death or serious injury to one’s person;
    * Learning about the death, near death, or serious injury of a family member or close friend;
    * Witnessing the death, near death or serious injury of another person

    I am fairly sure that diagnosis of PTSD is fairly new – how did people cope before that?
    My thoughts are with you both.

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  • D*mn – my block quote didnt work …………….
    We live ……….. to ……………….physical vioence is a block quote
    and PTSD ….to ….another person is a block quote.
    [Comment edited by David W. Boles]

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  • Hi Nicola!
    I was able to fix your comment since so much of it was based on those important blocks of quoted information!
    I am sorry to hear of the loss of your 9-week old. Was the death expected or sudden? I have been told that the death of a child is something a parent never forgets and thinks about every single day for the rest of their lives.
    I suppose I was lucky in that I missed the whole Sunday killing except for witnessing the body on the street.
    It’s true technology has brought home death and dying as a matter-of-every-ordinary-day into our houses now but it was also amazing to see the benefits of technology on the packed sidewalk that morning.
    Ten people of varying economic status and Race and age all reached into their pockets and purses to dial 911 on cell phones to call for help for the fallen woman.
    Two people rushed to comfort her. One guy took off his shirt and tucked it under the dead woman’s head.
    Within 4 minutes an ambulance and a fire truck were on the scene.
    Janna didn’t want to watch any more and she didn’t want to risk crossing six lanes of traffic if we didn’t have to in order to tell a police officer what she saw.
    As Janna moved on I waited to watch to see if any witnesses stepped forward. A small line was forming around a police car as people were pointing and acting out what happened I knew enough people saw what happened that we could walk home.
    Now when we walk in the same area Janna will slightly turn her head away from the death spot. I don’t think it’s a conscious decision. I think it’s a protection-from-the-past response.
    PTSD used to be called “shell-shocked” and it was still used as recently as the Vietnam War even though it was coined during World War I as soldiers were made numb and crazy with exposure to shellfire in the fields and hills.
    I have an uncle who served in Vietnam 35 years ago as a minister and if he hears a loud bang or a firecracker his entire body convulses in a cringe and if he’s asleep when the sound hits, he will throw himself out of bed and onto the floor with his hands over his head. Now is that whole-body response PTSD, shell-shocked or never-ending torture?

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  • Thank you for fixing that – and my slip of the toungue!
    My sons death was totally unexpected – meningococcal meningitis – is swift and deadly – what was a snuffly nose and unwillingness to feed one evening along with a “put him to bed and dont fuss” from the doctor on the phone lead to death by 7.00am the next morning. You never forget – and some days you remember and dwell on it more than others.
    It is heartening to hear that everybody rallied round and rang for help and did what they could at the scene. So often you hear that people walk on by – not wanting to get involved.
    Interesting she has that protection response – I also expect neither of you will ever cross the road at that point – and will always remember at some level what you saw.
    There has been much talk of what we now call PTSD formerly known as *shell shocked* in the UK recently. Several families have been calling for pardons for soldiers who were shot in World War One for cowardice – soldiers who were suffering from what we now understand to be shellshock or PSTD.
    Your uncle sounds as though he is suffering from all three – almost a living nightmare.
    The chaplain at my childrens school is another case in point. He was taking a group of children to a rugby match in London when he was invovled in what is known as the Newbury Train disaster. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/3992537.stm . He saw one of the young girls killed. He returned after a month to school – but the slghtest noise – the dropping of a book – or shouting would trigger off whole body responses and he had to retire.
    Janna might if she is troubled – like to do a simple ritual to ease this womans passing and her own mind.
    At a quiet time and place she could light a candle and bid that she rests in peace

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  • Nicola —
    Oh, that’s a terrible story about your son. Did the doctor have a response upon the news of the death? Was anything done to try to make it right with you?
    My uncle, I think, is doing much better. He is aware of the problem but sometimes instinct trumps rational thinking. I think as he’s aged and time and space have grown he isn’t quite so much in the trench mentality.
    Gosh, that must have been a terrible thing to see in the Newbury disaster. An awful haunting.
    Janna is pretty tough — we were both raised in the Midwest where the slaughterhouse mentality is an expected and undivine right of being — so we can compartmentalize and forget cruel things that should never be forgotten but never released.
    She has said, though, she never wants to see anything like that again. Once was enough for her. I am not wishing I saw the event.
    This reminds me of a comment we heard on the street a few hours after the World Trade Center crashed to the ground when one guy said while watching the smoldering rubble from across the river in Jersey City, “I can’t believe I didn’t see them fall!” It was a genuine expression of soulful disappointment but it was gory in the intent and cruel in the want for witnessing death.
    I like your candle ritual! I will definitely share that with Janna. It would provide a good and positive cleansing!

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  • Hi David,
    That’s a sad story and my heart goes out to the woman, her family and Janna for having witnessed it.
    The other day, I was in Chicago with other people from our office. My coworker was done, so he advised he’d be leaving. I was stuck waiting for a hearing — what should have been a routine matter that a clerk could stamp was held so that both parties “go on the record.”
    I left court, went to the parking garage and went home to enjoy the rest of a nice day.
    When I got back to the office, my coworker asked me if I had seen “the horrible accident.”
    I told him I didn’t see anything out of the ordinary when I left about a half-hour after he had left.
    He said when he was leaving, a woman stepped into the road against the traffic light and was hit by a car.
    Since it was in front of Chicago’s city hall, there were police officers and media people already in position to take care of the victim and roll tape for the evening news.
    The ambulance came and quickly took the victim away after a few minutes.
    Within a half-hour from the time my friend left and I left the Daley Center, the world returned back to normal and one would never know anything had happened at the intersection.
    Everything was back to normal and people were walking to and from their appointments.
    I had another experience where I came upon an incident after all of the action had occurred.
    When that happens, you know something unusual is going on, but your mind can’t figure it out. Of course, I kept wandering toward the scene of all of the commotion without thinking to ask someone what was going on with all of the activity.
    I was in Lafayette, Indiana going to court for a hearing and had left a city parking garage and was walking to the court like I had done many times before.
    When I got to the courthouse square, I noticed there was a police car with its lights on in the middle of the intersection. That was somewhat strange. I also noticed there wasn’t any vehicle traffic on the roads surrounding the courthouse.
    People were milling about in clusters and police officers where walking around — more than usual for the courthouse where a few might be expected for criminal hearings.
    When I went into the building, the security officers were “wired” and were checking and double checking people. I had to take off my belt and was given a look that I better not make any comments about how that was a hassle.
    When I got to where I was going in the courthouse, I found out that I had missed by only a few minutes an escape by a criminal who somehow got a gun and was firing at people at the normally peaceful courthouse square.
    Sometimes minutes and seconds separate us from meeting or witnessing disaster.

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  • Poor Janna, it must have been a very traumatic experience for her. She must have been in an extreme state of shock at the time and probably still is, in a lessser state of shock now, several days after the event.
    Even though you didn’t witness it first hand, David, you experienced the secondary trauma of the events that immediately followed. Not only did you have to deal with handling the aftermath, you also had to console and take care of Janna. How did you deal with it all and how did it affect you?
    I am fortunate that I have never witnessed, first hand, the death of another human being. We have seen deaths occur on the news on TV, but we are usually prepared for those, by the story that precedes such footage. We have also all been desensitized to some extent by frequent exposure to deaths depicted in movies or tv dramas.
    The only thing I can personally equate Janna’s trauma to, is relatively mild in comparison, but I know how badly shaken I felt at the time. I can relate to the slow motion recall, like a tv replay being played back in my head, over and over again. Each time it is replayed, the same sick feeling in the pit of your stomach that accompanied the original event, is replayed also.
    In a way, the slow motion replay that our mind tortures us with, is even worse than the original event. Because it is in slow motion, the mind has time to process everything and it emphasises the feelings of being helpless and powerless to prevent the inevitable. Even though my own experience was relatively trifling compared with Janna’s, the images are still fresh in my mind and the accompanying emotions are still there, when I recall the event.
    It was nearly thirty years ago now. I was walking to work, rather briskly, as I was late. It was the first warm morning of Spring. Funny how you remember such irrelevant details, all these years later. I was about five minutes from home and the traffic on the roads was fairly heavy, but moving steadily.
    A ginger cat suddenly ran across the road ahead of me, I instantly recognised it as the fat ginger Tom, owned by my next-door neighbours. My heart leapt to my mouth as it narrowly avoided a car on my side of the road. It’s stay of execution was only temporary as it ran headlong into a car coming from the other direction.
    It bounced a few times, it limbs splaying out in unnatural directions and came to rest, motionless a few feet from the impact. The unfortunate driver of the car who had hit it, stopped immediately, bringing traffic to a standstill.
    You can never predict how you will react in the first moments of witnessing such a tragedy. Inexplicable, I just turned around and walked back about ten paces.There was no real reason for me to do so. I suppose subconciously I wanted to re-trace my steps and turn back time and hope it didn’t happen.
    By the time I had gathered my thoughts and had turned around, a caring motorcyclist stopped, picked the cat up and laid it down under a tree. I walked over to the lifeless, ginger bundle of fur, it’s eyes still open and it’s pink tongue hanging out. It was obvious that it was dead. I remember bending down to stroke it, remembering the loud purring that it usually induced. Except there was no purring this time. I felt the tears welling up and knew I had to walk away.
    The remainder of my walk to work was all a bit of a blur. I remember wiping away a few tears from time to time, first checking that nobody was looking at me, because men aren’t supposed to cry, are they?
    I spent the rest of my day at work, with a sickly feeling in my stomach and I passed on lunch. Walking back home, I expected to see Thomas still lying beneath the tree, but he was gone. Stupidly, optimistically, ignoring the evidence of my own eyes from earlier in the day, I half-convinced myself that he had been only winded and had recovered and would be on top of the wall that we shared with our neighbours when I returned home. He wasn’t there, of course.
    I then had the task of breaking the sad news to my neighbours. They were a really sweet, elderly, Irish couple who had to be in their late seventies. They were in the back garden when I arrived home, but I thought it might be kinder to break the news to Len first and leave him to tell Ruby, in his own time, in a way that would cause the least distress to Ruby, his wife.
    I waited until Ruby went inside to prepare their dinner, leaving Len outside in the back yard. I asked him if he had seen their cat, Thomas, recently. He said that they hadn’t seen him for a day or two, but he wasn’t too worried because he had a habit of wandering off for a few days.
    I put my hand on the old man’s shoulder and told him that Thomas wouldn’t be coming back and recalled the sickening accident. I told him that I had waited until his wife had gone inside, because I thought it was best that he told her.
    Isn’t it funny how different people deal with death, albeit the death of a pet in this instance, in different ways? For ten seconds he was silent, I could see the sadness in his eyes and I knew he was very fond of Thomas. Then, he suddenly looked up, turned around to the open door to the kitchen, where his wife was busy cooking and shouted out liudly, in his thich Irish brogue “Ruby!! Thomas is dead!!”
    Subtlety was never Len’s strongpoint!!!

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  • Chris —
    It is interesting how we tiptoe through death as we move through the business of our lives. One moment a street is a killing ground, the next it is business as usual. The cynic in us would claim that is evidence of life being cheap but others could argue that is the clearest signal that life is ongoing — with us or without us.
    People do have a natural, if not morbid, interest in death and dying — probably because most of us only get to experience it once in a lifetime. Some may even feel a psychic rebirth at watching the death of someone else because it makes their life even more precious.
    Isn’t that the desire of daredevils and circus performers: To tempt death and live to tell about it?

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  • That is a touching story, budgie! I appreciate your love of animals and in many ways their deaths on the streets are even sadder than that of a human because cars, to an animal, are not a predator and they don’t click-in instinct survival.
    That said, our vet claims no cat should ever live outside because “everything out there is tougher and meaner than a house cat.” He’s right. Cats belong inside where they are safe and not out in the wild — feral or not!
    Janna is blunt and upfront — it’s part of her Deaf Culture — so she told me the story of what she saw and that was enough for her. It was over. It was out of her. She has no desire to re-hash it or discuss it further. If I ask about she just says, “It isn’t something I ever want to see again” and I know that also implies she never really wants to talk about it again, either. It has been stored away within her, ready for the recall, but not the re-living.

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  • The initial response from the Doctor (who refused the callout) was to *write it off* to cot death or SIDS as it is now known.
    When the Post Mortem gave cause of death he then of course had to eat a lot of humble pie and profusely apologised.
    At the time I was hell bent on suing them – him in particular. I spoke at length to my doctor several times – and at great depth about what I wanted to achieve – or salvage from the tradgedy.
    The answer was simple – for it never to happen again. We traded off/compromised – I didnt sue and he got all of the staff , doctors, nurses, midwives and receptionists retrained in how to spot meningitis, and to instigate a policy in that medical centre that Doctors would always attend out of hours callouts for infants under the age of two.
    I know this was the right thing to do beacuse two or three years later when there was a huge surge in meningitis cases our area did not suffer the same way as others. I was also quick enough to spot it in a friends child as well, which meant she got far quicker treatment and lived to tell the tale.
    I so feel for Janna – we have become desensitised to death – death is common place on TV and in other media – but to have it played out in front of your eyes in such detail – so see the light go out in front of you – is so very traumatic.

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  • You did the right, great, thing, Nicola and you served us all in our goodness and not just your own sorrow.
    I agree witnessing of the moment of death — looking the end of life in the eye — isn’t something I would ever wish to experience. Perhaps Janna will want to talk about it more in depth one day.
    It actually took awhile to get the whole story. She initially told me she saw a woman get hit by a car. That was all.
    It was only much later that she started to give the detail about witnessing the instant of death. It was scary to watch her relive it.

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  • I hope that she is able to put this behind her and that the *vision* fades quickly.
    She may need to get it out of her system though so be prepared !

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  • Hi Nicola!
    I am prepared! :grin:

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  • I feel for Janna. What a terrible terrible thing to witness.
    As with Nicola, I’ve also suffered an unexpected death of a child – although he wasn’t mine. he was my sister’s, making him my nephew. An unexpected death at home at 20 days old, my sister and her partner found him at 6am, just as he took his last breath. An ambulance was called, but it was too late. He was gone.
    A post mortem revealed that he actually died from the Streptococcus B Infection, also known as the silent killer. The infection wasn’t tested for at Birth – even though my sister was tested and found to carry it! It raged inside his tiny body, eating away at his internal organs until his body finally gave up the fight.
    My sister and her partner had called the doctor out 8 hours before his death because they were concerned about him. The Doctor diagnosed constipation. When I consider the many infections raging through his body alongside the Strep B infection – blood poisoning caused by the Meningitis Bacteria, Hepatitis, pneumonia to name just a few of them – my blood boils when I think of that Doctor.
    I feel for that young lady who lost her life so tragically and so suddenly when she still had everthing to live for. And I hope that one day in Janna’s mind, the vivid memories will fade – not to be forgotten, but filed far enough away so that she can live day to day life without remembering the haunting look on the young womans face in her final moments.

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  • Hi Dawn —
    Thank you for sharing your touching story. I am surprised to see how many infants die misdiagnosed. One would think a doctor would err on the side of caution instead of dismissal.
    Infants can’t speak for themselves and new parents don’t yet know how to read a baby’s body — so the first line of defense must be analysis of the baby’s physiology and only medical professionals can help you know the infant’s status!

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  • Isn’t that the desire of daredevils and circus performers: To tempt death and live to tell about it?

    I was at a small circus that was held at a small civic center in our area a couple of Thanksgivings ago. They had the usual circus attractions: roaring tigers, gigantic elephants doing tricks, and a high-wire act.
    During the high-wire act, the performer lost his balance for a few seconds. He quickly sat down on the wire, composed himself, and went on with his act.
    It was unsettling to see a performer lose his balance. That’s not supposed to happen, although the fact that it could happen at any moment keeps our eyes glued to the man (or woman) walking high above the hard concrete floor.
    When Alain Robert climbed the Sears Tower in Chicago before the turn of the century, my eyes were riveted to the television, even though I knew I had to go to work that morning. I couldn’t keep my eyes off of the live news coverage of his bare-handed climb up the side of the building.
    From CNN:

    Down below, about 100 people who watched the feat on their way to work in Chicago’s central business district cheered when Robert, clad in red shirt and pants, reached the top in little more than one hour.
    “I think it’s great,” Holly Liss, a futures broker for Fuji Securities Inc., said. But electrician Scott Kerivan commented: “Most people are here to see if he falls.”

    It’s reassuring to see people tempt death for our entertainment at circuses, racing events, and other exihibitions, such as Alain Robert’s building climbs, and survive. We want to fear that something bad can happen to the performer. We also want the reassurance that the performer will overcome the odds and survive the performance.
    It’s a way for us to come to grips with anxiety about the fragile nature of life.

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  • Right, Chris!
    There are daredevils among us who seem vested to remind of that life is fleeting. I have a small circus story of my own to share but your story has inspired me to save it for a larger post soon! :grin:

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  • until very recently i worked as a nurse. i saw many many different people die in any way you can imagine. painfully slow … lightening fast … bloody … almost unnoticed … expected (if there can be such a thing) … and unexpected. no matter how many times i had to endure death the feelings that came always felt the same – and it boils down to this … incredible feeling of … humility. for in death we have found the one thing in life we really cannot control. and so we obsess and fixate over it. and … those of us that have seem death, seen somone die, can never never forget. in my experience it never goes away. the images, the sounds of anguish and the sounds of impending death … these reside in my head forever.
    i, too, lost a son – his was an expected loss – one i had been bracing myself for since his infancy. nonetheless it sucked bigtime – but the i think i felt the intensity of the loss over a long time. not so with my sister, whom i lost to a car accident suddenly. still, it seems wierd to say this but on a general life basis i am more troubled by the deaths i experienced/witnessed of those i did not really know (ie people i encountered as patients), as opposed to those i did know personally.

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  • I suppose the worst thing that could happen to a person is to become unmoved by death, velvet.
    If that ever happens to any of us — where death becomes routine and one death blends into another — an irretrievable amount of humanity has been lost and makes us all a little smaller and a little icier.
    I’m sorry to hear about your terrible losses. My heart is with you.

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  • but it does … and it is becoming routine. one death blends into another so ‘nicely’ on CNN, BBC, CBC. the cynic in me wants to think the networks almost want it like that (a la jonathan carver news media from that james bond flick tomorrow never dies). and irretrievable amount of humanity is getting destroyed right in front of our CNN/BBC/CBC eyes and we are sometimes unhappy that we ‘missed the best part.’ i think this constant barrage of very impersonal – ie on a mass scale – death beamed into our living rooms daily makes us lose sight of the value of life. the very fact that we can also derive entertainment from death (checking out just about any move that’s popular now will verify that) says a lot.
    its different, tho, as your friend must know, if we witness death in a very close and personal encounter. even if we walk away surviving, we are untouched forever. even, if we did not know the person we watched die. i think – for those who follow harry potter – that j. k rowlings’ ‘thestrals’ are a symbol of this personal phenomenon.
    thanx for your kind words … i love this place you got here … :)

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  • Heya velvet —
    It is wonderful to have you with us!
    We often discuss here how life has become cheap and with that, death becomes discounted.
    Where once we revered the dead and what they stood for, now the dead are merely carcasses to be tossed, and memories to be buried.
    The media runs on fear and what better way to get us to tune in than to show us what we fear most: The end of our lives!
    Our politicians also run on fear and it is disgusting to watch the breathless manner in which “killing” and “bombing” so easily and delightfully roll off the tongues of those best vested to protect our lives. It’s as if they are getting a vicarious thrill in the possibility of the danger of our deaths.
    We need to allow death to touch us, and affect us, but not deter us or kill us.

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