How Does it Feel to Find a Dead Body?

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How Does it Feel to Find a Dead Body?

After the stretcher is wheeled away, after the police tape is taken down, bystanders are left with an experience they'd never seen coming. We asked three such people how this felt.

This post originally appeared in VICE Australia. 

The body-finding scene in movies and TV shows alway goes a bit like this: dog walker is out in the woods. The dog finds something in the bushes, followed by a gasp. Cut to police taping up the scene, and the dog walker is never seen nor heard from again. I've always found it hard to concentrate at that jump cut to police tape. I find my mind focusing on the person who found the body instead—what happened to them? What happened when they got home? What did they dream about that night? Did they go to work the next day? I mean, they found a fucking body. Life is never as clear-cut as the movies, so I reached out to three people who have found dead bodies in real life. We talked about the moment itself, and how the experience affected them in the following days.

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Goose, 25

I've found two dead bodies in my life. The first time, I found him about 15 minutes after he died. I don't want to describe the details so much because he was a good friend, but I will say that I found the experience so shocking that apart from calling an ambulance, I had no idea what to do. I felt really disoriented, like my brain hadn't caught up to what my eyes were seeing. A friend told me to do CPR, and it snapped me back into reality. I was later told that the CPR I performed allowed my friend to stay alive on life support for several days, long enough for all of his family and friends to see him one last time and say goodbye.

I didn't cry for a long time. I felt hollow and reserved and angry, and I drank heavily afterwards. There was this pervading thought of "fuck it" in my mind, kind of like I deserved to drink and take whatever I wanted after that, because "fuck it". I lost a lot of self control for a while. On the exterior I think I took it pretty well, I comforted a lot of people and didn't act like a burden. I was extremely stressed out though, I dropped out of my studies as a paramedic and have never gone back. It changed the trajectory of my life. Eventually, I came to this realisation that there is no changing the past and I've got a future to deal with. So that's what I did. Several years later, I had successfully dealt with my future and landed a sweet job. On my very first day, I got home and found my housemate's dead body on his bedroom floor. He'd died from a heroin overdose about 15 hours before I had found him. Despite the bent spoons in the kitchen drawer and his occasionally disheveled appearance, I'd never known he was using. He was very rigid, and as cold as the wooden floorboards he was laying face down on. When you die, your blood stops pumping and settles into wherever gravity pulls it. From what I could see, my housemate had what looked like one big bruise on the entire front side of his body. After the ambulance and the police left, some people came to collect his body and they asked if we wanted to say goodbye. He looked pretty fucked up but I stared at his face for about a minute. It was so hard to break away because I knew that I'd never see him again after that. It was heartbreaking. When I woke up the next morning, it took a minute to hit me that my friend had actually died the day before. I felt guilty that I had forgotten for that brief moment. I started calling everyone that knew him, which really sucked, having to hear people breaking down and dealing with the blow over and over again. My previous experience afforded me the wisdom to keep moving forward. I will carry these experiences with me for the rest of my life. I'll never get the images out of my head, but that's okay. I'll keep growing and living, and these people and experiences are a part of that. Now when I think about my friends I feel love for them, and I value the time that we spent together.

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Sabrina, 27

I have a street-facing balcony that you can find me on most nights, and it also has a view of my downstairs neighbour's courtyard. I have never really spoken to any of my neighbours, and I couldn't tell you any of their names, but I recognise the faces. My downstairs neighbour was an elderly man who I guessed to be retired. Often I would see him from my balcony, standing in his courtyard, having a smoke. One day I was sitting on my balcony to unwind after work when something caught my eye—my downstairs neighbour lying on the ground. I hesitated and stepped back inside. I remember thinking, "What's he doing like that?" I went outside again for a proper look and that's when I saw that he was lying face down, his glasses were crushed under his face, and one of his slippers were off. I called out but there was no response, or even a flinch. So I repeated myself…nothing. At this point I noticed the flies on his back. I looked around me, realising that I was the only one seeing this, so I was the only one who could react. At that point I thought "Right, just call an ambulance now." The paramedics arrived and one of them told me "Yeah, the man's actually deceased." Apparently he had been for some time. Honestly, I was shocked. When they left, after what felt like ages but was probably only a few minutes, I opened my balcony door again—but nope, the neighbour was still down there, this time accompanied by police. It kind of upset me but I knew they had to "assess the scene" before they could move him. I felt awful for the man's son who would have to find out from the police that his father had seemingly dropped dead in his own courtyard. Such a sudden death can never be easy for a family to experience. I feel lucky that I've never been through that. When I told this story to people they would say to me, "Oh I'm so sorry you had to go through that," but all I could think about was the man's family. Their grief and shock at his sudden death. About a month later, I had new downstairs neighbours. Life goes on.

Ryan, 28

About nine years ago I was walking home when, from some distance away, I noticed a person lying on the curb. I thought that maybe it was an accident and the person was just a little dizzy. So when I arrived, I didn't expect to see a dead person. He was lying on the asphalt road with his head laid on the curb; blood oozing out of his right eye. Apparently, somebody shot him in the back of his head and the bullet exited out of his right eye. He was still alive at this point, but clearly dying. He mumbled some words but they were unintelligible. I could clearly see his chest rise up and down, air bubbling in his mouth. I just stood there for a while. Very soon more people had gathered around me, and the police station was only something like 300 meters away so they arrived quickly. I just stood there ruminating about life, and particularly how fragile it is. How easy it is to end the life of a person. It was all so surreal. At one point, as I was observing the amount of blood that was oozing out of his eye, trying to imagine where his right eye used to be. You could say I was observing this from a scientific point of view. Only after I left did I start to think about what had happened. Later, on my walk home, I noticed my hands were trembling and my knees were weak. I went into my room and thought about what had happened and I guess I eventually fell asleep. The next morning I went through the same routine: wake up, get dressed, eat breakfast. But this time, images of the guy on the curb kept playing at the back of my head.

Walking to school, I headed past the spot on the curb. A small wooden cross had appeared along with a couple of lit candles. I wondered if he'd been thinking about in his last moments on Earth. Did he have people in his life he wanted to talk to? Did he want to ask anyone for forgiveness? To be honest I'm not even sure if he could think, since the bullet pretty much messed up his brains. I didn't tell anyone at school what had happened, for some reason. When I went home from school, nothing had changed. The small cross stood there accompanied by a dying candle. People were going about their business as usual. It later came out that the victim had an altercation with someone the previous day. Apparently the suspect walked up behind the victim and shot him in the back of his head, walked back to his motorcycle and rode off. Just like that.

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