Kenneth L. Hardin: News brings back memories of unenviable task
Published 12:00 am Sunday, February 6, 2022
By Kenneth L. Hardin
In the more than two decades I worked in hospitals across this country, the hardest job I had was to notify families that a loved one had died.
To know you’re responsible for a significant life altering moment with a family was a heavy emotional task. It sounds odd to say that I became proficient at it, but I learned the signs and behaviors to be aware of leading up to and after making the notification. Some folks would pass out on the spot, others would lose control and start thrashing about and some would take off on a sprint down the hallway and out across the parking lot with me in chase. The ones that concerned me the most were those who fell completely silent, frozen in a statue-like position not uttering a word. Within that unenviable and emotionally arduous task, immediately after the death notification, I had to return and respectfully ask the family to donate their loved one’s tissue and organs.
There were only two times when I found it nearly difficult to complete the task. Whenever there was a child involved, it would hit me so hard I would sometimes have to seek medical treatment afterwards in the same hospital I was working.
I recall one instance where a special needs 9-year-old child drowned in a public swimming pool. His parents were divorced and remarried others later, so I had to make the notification twice that evening. The father came in first with his new wife. A half hour later, the mother followed with her new spouse. I sat in the room offering words of comfort to the mother as she cradled the lifeless body of her small child saying, “God knew what he was doing. The other kids won’t have to call you stupid anymore.” When they all left, I rolled his body down to the morgue and came back to check myself into the emergency room for an EKG and treatment.
The other most challenging task was calling families after a person felt they were out of options, had no one they could reach out to for a lifeline and made the final decision to end their life. I always tried to disassociate my feelings when I talked to families and view it as a task while still showing the utmost compassion. This was the only way I was able to do this almost daily. But when it came to suicide, I allowed my mind to wander to their final moment and put myself in the deceased’s place. I wondered what was the definitive thing or moment that pushed them to this final act. I wondered about their level of loneliness and hopelessness at that moment. I pondered whether they thought about the pain of loved ones and family that would be devastated with their choice. At one N.C. hospital, I had to reach out to the father of his only child, a grown divorced daughter with two young children and break the sad news that she had taken her life. What made this even more difficult was he was a volunteer in the hospital so I knew him personally and interacted with him daily. He was working that day, so I called him into a small waiting room to deliver the news that would alter his life. Like everyone else at that moment, he wanted to know the specifics, so I explained as tactfully and respectfully as possible that she shot herself in the chest with a gun. I later found out women don’t typically shoot themselves in the head region like most people who use a gun. I didn’t ask the professional why because I didn’t want to have that part of it occupy any space in my brain.
The recent suicide of 30-year-old Cheslie Kryst, a former Miss North Carolina who won the Miss USA crown in 2019, caused all those questions to come flooding back as if I was the one who would have to notify her family.
I wondered what she was thinking as she leapt from the 29th floor of her apartment building in New York. She was stunningly beautiful, had worldwide fame and acclaim, worked in the news entertainment industry and held her law license, but apparently something was missing. An average of 132 people commit suicide every day. Men die by suicide at a rate of over 3.5 times more often than women. If you know someone who has been down, blue, blah or not themselves for a while, get involved and be that lifeline. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24 hours a day in both English and Spanish. It can be reached at (800) 273-8255.
Kenneth L. (Kenny) Hardin is a former city councilman, a member of the National Association of Black Journalists and the board executive chairman of The High Road, Inc. Find out more at hardingroupllc.com.