Summit County coroner’s survivor program offers help for families impacted by death
December 5, 2016
In a community as small as Summit County, it can sometimes feel like everybody knows everybody. That can make Regan Wood's job as coroner all the more difficult: Rather than investigating the deaths of strangers, she often finds herself on the front line of the passing of someone she knows.
In larger jurisdictions, like Denver, where Wood has worked in the past, as many as 30 deaths can come in a day, which means the dreaded phone calls to next-of-kin are often done by deputies or administrative staff. But here, Wood herself often makes the call, which gives the office a more personal feel.
That spirit is also reflected in the coroner's Survivor Support Program, which links people affected by a death to a dedicated staff of trained support specialists who offer counseling and a range of other services to help ease the trauma of someone's passing.
The program was migrated last year from Summit County Advocates for Victims of Assault, a local nonprofit, and has now expanded to 10 trained staffers that are on call 24/7 every day of the year to respond to calls. The program is unique to the Summit County coroner's office, and Wood said Lake, Clear Creek and Park counties have sought her advice on getting their own started. So far, the program has been a big success, said its coordinator, Andrea Brown.
"I feel honored that people trust us in such difficult times. We get a lot of feedback — cards, letters, emails, saying, 'Thank you for just listening to me.'"
Often, that's a big part of what survivor staff members do: offer a space to talk through the intense grief that accompanies any death. The program also helps survivors monitor their mental health and the physical symptoms that can accompany intense grieving.
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"The purpose is to bridge the gap between the survivor and their own mental health and safety," Brown said. "Sometimes, that's just a listening ear."
A listening ear
Support staff are available for anyone who feels affected by a death, including strangers who may have witnessed it or neighbors who only knew the deceased in passing.
After a suicide earlier this year, the deceased's roommates just needed to be out of their house for a few days, so support staff helped them get hotel rooms and food from the Family Intercultural Resource Center (FIRC) food bank.
"Suicides are definitely the most difficult cases all-around, especially in small communities," Wood said. "It's tough for communities like this, where we kind of live in a fishbowl. We do follow-ups, keep tabs on them and check in at a higher rate than normal because they're very vulnerable."
There have been 10 suicides so far this year in the county, up from last year's total of eight. Survivor Support staff have felt that impact perhaps more than any other people in the county.
"We get calls from people that weren't actually there but were deeply affected," Brown said. "It's that ripple effect, especially with suicides. The human brain wants resolution and people need closure. But with suicides that can be very hard, and when there's no reason we can provide, it's like a wound that never heals. So we just try to help close that wound whatever way we can."
A heavy burden
The work takes a toll on Survivor staff themselves, and a major plank of the program is mutual monitoring and support, as well as a strong vetting process to ensure that counselors won't be triggered in the line of duty and re-open their own wounds.
"In order to talk to someone about death, you have to have the right person," Brown said. "There are some people who emotionally couldn't do it. And seeing someone's pain is something nobody wants to do."
Staff members and deputy coroners routinely check in on each other after cases, and each have their own ways of coping with the intense emotional burden of the job.
Sometimes, though, they just need a break. Earlier this year, one coroner investigators had to respond to two child deaths and a suicide in a single day. Wood told her to take some time off and decompress.
"It wears on you," Wood said. "You have to set boundaries for yourself and have good ideas about self-care. We do lean on each other — following up with each support staff member to make sure a call didn't traumatize them. If they're starting to burn out, we say, 'Lets have you take a break.'"
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