William The Coroner’s Forensic Files

Monday, 6, April, 2009

Grief Reactions

Filed under: Forensics — williamthecoroner @ 13:03

There are times when people do not accept a medical examiner’s conclusions. In a great many of these instances, grief plays a role. Grieving people do not always think clearly. Grief comes to us all, but everyone handles it differently.

In one instance, a gentleman was concerned that his mother had died from pulmonary hemosiderosis due to black mold. This was unlikely to begin with, most of those cases were described in children, that is a matter of some dispute. After autopsy, it was even more unlikely, as there was no hemosiderin in the lungs, and a large myocardial infarct with three vessel cardiac disease. It was signed out as acute MI. This gentleman disputed my findings, and came in for a conference. It is always a bad sign, as I learned, when people come in with three shopping bags filled with documents. I reviewed the findings with him, and he told me he didn’t believe me, and wanted me to change the diagnosis, or he was going to get an attorney. I referred him to a probate attorney. I’m still waiting for the attorney to call, but it’s been going on eight years now.

Another time, a man called me concerned that he’d buried his mother alive. He hadn’t, she’d come through the office, was examined, released to the funeral home, embalmed, and buried three months previously. Now, she was dead when I looked at her. If she wasn’t, the embalming would have killed her, but it didn’t she was really most sincerely dead. He was in earnest, and worried that because her pacemaker was working that she was still alive. A pacemaker doesn’t make someone immortal. The pacemaker was still working, but the cardiac muscle was dead. After eight hours and three phone calls, I was getting desperate. I kept thinking of the parrot sketch. Finally, I passed him off to the boss, who spent another half day meeting with him, and then told him that she could not help him any further.

Finally, I received this email recently:

My son’s autopsy does not list a ‘mechanism’ of death!
Redacted identifying information
Autopsy Report:
“Tardieu spots on the anterior surfaces of the thighs, as well as on the posterior surface of the body.”
How does a Medical Examiner come to this conclusion with the physical findings mentioned?

I looked at her documents, and at her website. This case appears to be a straightforward hanging. The physical findings point to hanging (tardieu spots, etc) and importantly, there are no defense wounds, or other injuries that indicate a struggle or a fight. Homicidal hangings are rare, and extra-judicial homicidal hangings are even more rare. The soon-to-be-victim would really rather be somewhere else, and struggles violently. There was no evidence of this in this case.

Suicides are difficult. Many people don’t want to accept the findings. There is a lot of anger. A good friend of mine hanged herself nearly two decades ago, and I’m still pissed off. What’s terrible is I’m pissed off and I can’t give her a piece of my mind. It is difficult to imagine how much worse the feelings would be for a parent. A lot of that anger and blame gets deflected onto the coroner’s office. That’s part of what we’re paid for.



  1. Excuse the oddity of the question — it was suggested by the screen which is slowly but steadily sucking my brains out through my eyes — but have you ever had a family member refuse to accept that a body is their relative? Refuse identification, etc.?

    Comment by Bianca Castafiore — Tuesday, 7, April, 2009 @ 13:00 | Reply

    • We had someone who had concealed his identity, with a boatload of money but no family we could find. Then there was the guy who just would not pick up his relative for 16 months. But no one refusing an identification.

      Comment by williamthecoroner — Tuesday, 7, April, 2009 @ 15:58

  2. I know it’s really cruel of me to laugh given the context, but this is hilarious: “A pacemaker doesn’t make someone immortal.”

    Comment by sara — Wednesday, 8, April, 2009 @ 10:11 | Reply

  3. I remember when we went to get my brother’s things after he hanged himself, still being in that “I can’t believe it” stage. I mean I believed it, but I didn’t *believe* it, if that makes sense. Idgit that I was, I asked the Sheriff if I could see a picture, to assure myself it really was him they had. He said yes, but heartily (and kindly) recommended against it.

    … Lordy am I glad today I took his advice.

    I can’t imagine doing what y’all do. Thanks for being the human face for folk in that situation. I’m sure your kindnesses will be remembered long into the future.

    And condolences on the lost of your friend.

    Comment by Jenny — Thursday, 9, April, 2009 @ 01:37 | Reply

  4. You know…I’d never really considered the strange and/or sad things that might come your way as a coroner.
    Hubby (and I through him)get the immediate “yep, reaaallly dead” experience. Rarely is there any further action needed. So I hadn’t given it much thought.

    It must be something new all the time- or perhaps not so much new as…the same thing in a variety of options…??

    You ought to do an Ask The Coroner post now and then. (You don’t, do you? I’m relatively new…)

    Comment by LauraB — Thursday, 9, April, 2009 @ 16:57 | Reply

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