This is the next in our series The First Moments. Just a heads up to our readers, due to the nature of this topic, it is a long read and may be difficult. However, we do feel it is important enough to cover this burdensome subject.
Those difficult questions about whether or not to donate your loved ones organs and autopsies. Here, we share our stories about how those questions were posed and answered in those first moments after we had discovered our loss. These topics are difficult and must be posed; however, we hope that others’ experiences will be better than our encounters with them.
Organ donation is a topic that sometimes we discuss before our death and may have a someday I’ll get to it approach. Jeni and I both have our stories to share and had very different experiences with this topic. While there isn’t a right or wrong way to go about this, we want you to be prepared for these conversations after death. Autopsy isn’t something we even knew to discuss or consider.
Teresa’s story – Kris and I had agreed we both were organ donors and had checked the little box on the drivers license renewals. We had the organ donor sticker on our license. I wasn’t prepared for the event and answering those questions.
On the day he died, I wasn’t prepared or even remembering that we agreed on organ donation. Later that day after hearing the news of his death in the afternoon, the organ donation call came at 7:10pm. I know this because I distinctly remember looking at the clock on the stove. I picked up to see who the blank was calling me now before one of the well meaning friends answered for me. The nicest lady informed me she was from the organ donation place (or whatever it was) and she was so sorry for my loss but she needed to ask me questions so that they could harvest Kris’s organs. I remember sitting in the rocking chair, tears streaming down my face thinking at least some good can come of this awful day. Harvesting his organs? Kris always was there to help anyone out and after death he wanted to continue to do good. The lady asked me about his various body parts and did I release them for organ donation. It was a weirdly comforting and horrible feeling going through his body parts from feet towards his head. I don’t remember much other than sniffling and un-huh ing as I mouthed who it was to my friends and they all sat around crying with me. I was on the phone for what seemed like forever, about 45 minutes answering all of her questions. I was feeling a tiny bit of good may come out of this horrible day. Until the last question.
“I need to ask you one more question, and no one ever says yes.”
“Did Kris ever live in the UK at any time for 3 months or more during 1980 – 1996?” she asked.
“Um, Yes, we did in 1992-1993.” I replied fondly remembering our time living and working in the UK and meeting life long friends traveling Europe and working.
“Oh, no, I’m so sorry, this means that none of his organs are eligible for organ donation.” she tearfully replied.
“What? Nothing? He was a healthy 40yr old?” I screeched at her.
“I know I’m so sorry, let me see, it looks like his corneas may be eligible.” she replied.
I don’t remember anything else from the call other than feeling even worse and deflated, my job had taken us to the UK and now I couldn’t even honor his last wishes about organ donation. I was angry and felt guilty. It was my fault his organs couldn’t be donated. It was my job that had taken us out of the country and my job that denied me this last piece of comfort. I raged cursing a storm afterwards. It just wasn’t fair and I couldn’t even do that right. The anger and guilt overwhelmed me.
A reasonably healthy 40yr old man and just his corneas maybe could be of use?!?! What the HELL? I never even got to find out if they did use them…
As I write this today, 106,000 people are waiting for life saving transplants. There’s fewer to come by now due to the pandemic so I read. I’m a firm supporter of organ donation and maybe someday my organs will be deemed safe for transplant. It still saddens me that he wasn’t able to give his organs to anyone.
Just as the organ donation question brought up a series of emotions, the question of the autopsy triggers a lot of emotions. Even today, I get emotional about this topic. For me, this was not a question posed to me. It was a decision stolen from me and one that I was not even informed about until after it had happened. To say that it still causes anger is an understatement…here is my version of what happened:
Kris’s autopsy came as a complete surprise to me at the funeral home when we went to plan the services. I’m still upset that I was never asked nor did anyone bother to tell me this had happened. Maybe they did but I don’t remember.
I remember the scene vividly and here’s a short excerpt from Soul Love:How a Dog Taught me to Breathe Again as a means to show this. We, the boys, pastor and a few friends were at the funeral home planning his service – family hadn’t arrived yet. I blurted this out in the middle of the planning session.
“ I need to see Kris’s body,” I firmly say as I look over to where I think his body might be in the room to the left.
“No, that’s not a good idea, “ Mr. Funeral Home Director & Pastor say in unison.
“Why not? He’s been in an accident, I get it. Was he so mangled I can’t see his foot or toe or something?” I cry
“No, Ms. Klein, it’s not a good idea.” Mr. Funeral Director pleads with me. I’m so frustrated that no one will even tell me where he is.
Edited out of the book is my ranting and raving about seeing his body and demanding to be able to see him one last time. I needed this closure. I had to just know. Finally, after I stopped wailing and shrieking, someone, I don’t remember who, quietly says, he’s at the Medical Examiners for the autopsy.
I clearly remember going ballistic at this point, asking, Why is he having an autopsy? Why didn’t anyone ask me? Why can’t I see him? Apparently autopsy is standard procedure in a fatality in Texas. Everyone kept telling me it was better this way, I didn’t want not to see him like that. I broke down into a puddle of heaving tears after that and it was a long while before we circled back to memorial service planning.
Here we are 12 years out and I still wish I had gone down town to Austin to the darn Medical Examiners (ME) office and demanded to see his body. I wanted that finite closure. I have copies of the ME’s report and that’s it. Cold, sterile paper. I remember reading them and not understanding some of the conflicting details. Something has always seemed off with his death to me. Sometimes I wondered if he was really dead or staged his death. I mean all I ever heard was he was identified by his drivers license and vehicle. Unanswered questions still loom. I’ve given it to God as I cannot answer or understand. I’ve given the boys copies of the MEs report. I have no idea if they’ve ever read them. I wish someone had asked or informed me. Getting surprised while planning his service still stings today.
I have learned that in cases of an unwitnessed, accidental, foul play, natural or undetermined deaths and autopsy can be ordered. In fact in some cases and most states there is no requirement to tell family members of this. I hope you’re never surprised by this death detail.
Jeni’s Story –
We had never talked about the “what if” something happened. We were not even in our forties…so the thought of one of us dying had not come up in conversation. He avoided life insurance as it required a physical and he didn’t want to do it. He hated doctors and all that went with them. Organ donation was definitely not a discussion that we had covered in our time together.
The night he died, I was functioning in total shock and numbness (like most who have suffered a sudden loss). We were in the side lounge at the hospital where they had placed me and my friends and family.
I have often referred to this as the “death” room. Not a place I EVER want to be again.
Even though Bob was basically gone before we arrived at the hospital, they kept us in that room for over 2 hours before we knew what was happening. It seemed like an eternity. Even then, it was our Pastor who went and found out the awful truth. The doctor didn’t come and talk to us until over an hour after the Pastor had found out that Bob was gone and the doctor seemed irritated that it was our Pastor who informed us.
Once they had let me know that Bob was gone, different individuals began coming to the room in order to talk to me.
I remember that one of the first to talk to me was a police officer who asked me if I wanted to have an autopsy done. I can remember saying that I didn’t want this to happen as I didn’t feel Bob would have wanted that. I knew his opinion about doctors and couldn’t imagine him wanting them to open him up AFTER he had died. I was then “informed” that because he was so young and because it was a sudden death, an autopsy would HAVE to be completed. The officer was merely informing me…not really asking. I remember thinking, “then why the HELL did you ask?”
I wanted to forget about the fact that they were doing the autopsy. I didn’t want it to happen. They took that decision from us and made it happen. At the funeral, I would be reminded of THEIR choice. While I was saying goodbye to my love, I could see some of the stitching in his hair. It was indicative of another thing that had been stolen from us. I absolutely hate that one of my last images of my Bob is knowing that I could see the evidence of the autopsy having been completed.
Next up, were two individuals that came bearing a clipboard. I can remember them talking and me not registering what they were saying. They had come into the room and just started their spiel. They were talking about organ donation. I saw the fear and terror in my children’s eyes as they were listening to these individuals as what they were saying started to make sense through the haze. Where I gathered the strength to get them out of that room, I do not know. However, I quickly moved us to the hallway to continue the conversation.
Now, I have family members who have received organs from donors and I am forever grateful to those who were able to make the decision that saved their lives. So, please know that had this situation been handled differently, I may or may not have made the same decision. But, here is what happened that night.
I was in shock. I was numb. I had already been denied one decision in regards to my husband and I had many more to make. I felt powerless. I felt weak. I wanted him back. I wanted to hold on to him. They were already going to cut into him to determine why he died…no matter what I said. And, now these two women with their clipboards had barged in on me and my family and friends while we were trying to process his death to take more of him. They had done it in front of my kids with no empathy or sympathy for what was happening to us. At least, that is what it felt like to me.
I had enough. I was done. I could feel the fury rising inside of me. They were not taking anything more from us. How dare they do this in front of my kids? So, even though I know the importance and the impact of organ donation, I was not having it that night. I made the decision not to do what they wanted and, in this instance, they could not force me. I guess in some way, it was me trying to get some control.
Is this what he wanted? I don’t know. Would I have made the same decision if they had handled things differently? Again, I don’t know. All I know is that my fight defense came out and the decision was made. I felt that I had to protect my children and what was left of us.
Our intent is that our stories help you in some way. We also want to spark a conversation with your loved ones about your death and dying so they know your wishes. That way, they can act in accordance with your desires instead of relying on a knee jerk reaction to the questions that will come. We also have some resources below for you.
Wishing you health, peace and blessings,
Teresa & Jeni
Organ Donation Resources