Psychological Autopsy is the title of number 4 of a monogram series. Written by Avery Wieseman and Robert Kastenbaum and published in 1963, we are going back a few years. Both are remembered for their work in researching grief. I heard both years ago at grief seminars.
I was nine years into my experience as a full-time chaplain and I had already begun to train lay people as story listeners in the hospital. We were to find that grief stories in some form provided the main category of stories heard by the Befrienders. We started a grief resource group in January 1975 to study grief in its many aspects. Then in 1976 we started a grief recovery group which went through many different phases before I retired in 1992. Genesis Hospital has since closed the grief recovery program.
I came across this book in 1971 on a Clinical Pastoral Education sabbatical at the Alcohol Treatment Unit, the University of Iowa, Iowa City, Iowa. This was a very helpful learning experience providing deep insights into the issue of both addiction and idolatry in Scripture. Also how alcohol is used as a pain reliever in handling grief and losses of all kinds in the craving of being better, even perfect.
The counselors at the Alcohol Treatment Unity talked about fractional suicide. Addictions take their toll on our life expectancy, lowering the years we live. And with Alcohol Addiction, the terminal face is either DT’s or Kidney failure. The terminal phase would be different for others. Smokers often have pulmonary obstructive lung disease and obese often have a diabetic condition with complications. The sources of the health problem are part of the psychological autopsy in answer to the question: when did they start to die.
Sometime after my reading of the Psychological Autopsy I had a situation in the hospital emergency room which was a classic example. A man working at the Rock Island Arsenal had a cardiac arrest. A young medical intern who was assigned to the Arsenal began procedures to resuscitate. He worked during the ambulance ride to the hospital and continued in the emergency room. The wife arrived and I spend some time hearing her side of the story. Her husband removed himself from relating to his family, even his wife, although they lived in the same house, eating and work was his only activity.
I had a chance to visit with the young doctor after the wife left the hospital. I heard his lament about not being able to save this man’s life. I then shared with him the story I heard from the wife and the monogram on the psychological autopsy. The question was evident, when did this man begin to pull away from life and relationships. I do not have that story. What I have is the story of his dying process which began long before his cardiac arrest. Was his cardiac arrest part of a broken heart experience, loss of purpose and meaning, etc. We have questions without answers other than there is an in-depth way of studying our dying process: the psychological autopsy.
I know about this first hand. When the family farm was lost in 1938 under questionable legal circumstances followed by my father’s inability to get an automatic calf feeder on the market, he began to register a depression that became chronic and next, manifesting itself in a heart attack leading to an early death. There is a parallel in the broken heart syndrome. His unresolved grief did encourage me to facilitate a grief recovery group for 17 years to provide for others what he didn’t have himself. And this week the newspaper carried a large article on the broken heart syndrome listing various causative factors.
Moving fast forward to the pandemic and 2000-2002 with various mutations of the covid virus we have misinformation, excuses for resisting being vaccinate, anti science, no mandates, etc. all potential behaviors that can lead to death from the virus and can be registered under the psychological autopsy.
An unvaccinated person may carry a hidden weapon, the virus, which can be he the cause of their death or others. And those who distort the best information we have at a given time as we continue learn more, this is a process, they may unintentionally or even intentionally contribute to a persons death. Example: my brother in law had a person he worked with buy into misinformation. He refused to be vaccinated He came down with the virus and went to the hospital where he died. I doubt if misinformation will be found on the death certificate. I doubt if the name of an unvaccinated person who spread the virus will be found on the death certificate. If you ask the question, when did this person start to die as posed by my understanding of the psychological autopsy, you have many contributing factors not identified. The reality of this dynamic requires a serious look in how you define freedom.
There is a forensic psychological autopsy professional for suicide. My niece is giving some consideration to studying for that profession.