My family was notified of Shane’s death the day it happened – November 6, 2010. The following day, on November 7, 2010, still reeling and shocked from the news, we were on a plane with our Casualty Assistance Officer, headed into a Pennsylvania airport, where we would then be driven to a hotel, where we would then be driven to the Dover Air Base, where we would then witness a Dignified Transfer.
A Dignified Transfer is essentially a body in a box, covered by a flag, being carried off of a plane and placed into a truck that will head to a morgue. When looked at in that manner, it’s nothing special, let alone emotional. It was explained to us that no one was allowed to touch or view the body and that we would have to stand a good distance away from the plane. I felt prepared for this event. It seemed cold, mechanical. As I would have no proof that Shane’s body was actually in the box coming off of the plane, for me this was going to be fine.
When we arrived at the hotel somewhere in Dover, a hotel that I will never remember the name of, let alone what room I stayed in, there was paperwork. There was a room with snacks and candy and muffins and sandwiches and prayer shawls and books and pamphlets on death and grief. There were people in Army and Air Force uniforms who looked at us with solemnity.
After settling into our rooms, we were instructed that we would be meeting with a chaplain. I do not really remember what he said. I was quiet. I didn’t want to listen to a man tell me about God and faith and how Shane was in a better place, and the fact that this man was a chaplain meant that he might say those things. So I tuned out as he spoke to my parents and me. After asking some questions of my parents, the chaplain turned to me and asked, “Elizabeth, are you okay? Do you have any questions?”
I surprised myself by answering.
“Yes,” I answered. “What are we supposed to do now?”
“Well, we’re going to wait to hear from the Air Base as to when the flight will be arriving and then we will all drive over there –“
“NO. What are we supposed to do NOW?!?”
I wanted the chaplain to give me something that he could not – a schedule, a checklist for grief, anything that would tell me how and what I was supposed to do to get over the death of Shane. I did not realize this at the time, but none of that exists.
He left us to sit in the room and for my parents to deal with me. We waited. And waited. Until finally at around 11:30 p.m. we were told that we needed to leave for the Air Base. We piled into a van with another family whose son/brother had died the day before Shane did. As we drove along in the dark, small talk ensued. I probably answered some questions about my age, what I did for a living, what type of law I wanted to practice. I listened to some guy from U of M tell me within 10 seconds of meeting him that he, in fact, when to U of M, something that I found a small amount of humor in, since almost all people from U of M do this, apparently even when death is happening. But mostly I just wanted everything to be over with.
We were escorted to the actual airfield shortly after midnight, where there was a rope we were to stand behind, a plane to the right, and a white van to the left. It was bitter cold outside. I was asked if I wanted another coat or blanket but refused.
I wanted to be cold. I wanted to feel.
We watched the body belonging to the killed son/brother of the other family. I had no reaction. This was okay, I could handle this, I thought to myself.
But then something happened. When the 6 guards carefully gripped onto the box containing Shane’s body, it was the first time that I really realized he was dead. That my baby brother whom I had at times tried so desperately to protect and for whom I would have done anything in the world, including taking a bullet myself, was a cold body in a cold box, being carried my cold men in the bitter night wind.
I wanted so desperately to run out onto the airfield, to grab the box from the guards’ hands. To lie next to it. To hug it. To tell Shane to wake up and not be dead.
Instead, I howled. I screamed a guttural, ancient sort of noise at the top of my lungs. It was the loudest, most violent scream that will ever come from my mouth. I felt bodies rush around me as my legs started to give. I felt my mother pull me into her chest. I was told to sit down, to go back to the bus. Attempts were made to give me Kleenex, to just shut me up, probably. I refused everything that was offered. I cried until snot poured out of my nose, until spittle came out of my mouth. And I let the tears and the snot and the spittle fall down my face onto my clothing and onto the ground, the same ground which held the guards’ feet. The same guards’ feet that belonged to the bodies of the guards, whose hands held a box. The box that held my dead brother’s body.
On the airfield, I realized that Death is anything but dignified. Yes, the ceremonies that are performed may be called that. But actual Death is the most hideous monster, an all-consuming tidal wave of nothingless, anger, and grief. Death is the most skilled and cunning of hunters, striking when its prey least suspects it. Death is sometimes quiet, sometimes violent, sometimes both. At that moment, Death was screaming at the top of my lungs until I thought my vocal chords had been ripped. Death is all of these things, but Death is not dignified.