Sudden Death Specialists Help Grieving Families

Health, Home & Family, Hometown Heroes, People
on May 27, 2001

For Franne Whitney Nelson, death is a fact that must be dealt with, and she helps people do just that. While she brings bad news, many who have found her unexpectedly at their dooraccompanied by a Vermont state trooperhave come to regard her as a mentor and friend.

It was that way for Monika Fout-Kowalewski of Underhill Center, Vt. On March 12,1997, her husband, Aaron Fout, 31, was caught in a freak snow squall and killed in an auto accident.

Nelson broke the news of Aarons death to Monika and to the couples three children, all younger than 5.

Shes very comforting because shes straightforward, says Fout-Kowalewski, now 32. I asked her pointed questions and shed answer them. People like me need information to make their brain work.

Nelson calls herself an educational thanatologistafter Thanatos, god of death in Greek mythologyor a sudden death specialist.

Five years ago, she created the nations only state police Sudden Death Trauma Program for the Vermont State Police. On call 24 hours a day, she assists them in cases of unexpected death. Nelson offers on-scene crisis intervention and bereavement support for families and, in some cases, schools or entire communities.

The main reason that what I do has such an impact is because people dont expect this to come out of the Vermont State Policeany police organization, she says.

Now, Nelson wants to train a team of specialists. She plans to offer her first-in-the-nation Sudden Death Specialist Certification training to law enforcement officials, medical professionals, and clergy in her hometown of Montpelier during Labor Day weekend.

Detective Sgt. Joel Davidson, a 14-year veteran with the state police in Rutland, says he wants Nelsona vivacious 50-something grandmotherfor backup whenever he goes to the scene of whats known in police parlance as an untimely.

Our emphasis is on investigating the case, says Davidson, who has accompanied Nelson on about a dozen calls. Her focus is on the family and helping them deal with the situation and on getting them through it.

Nelson guesses shes made about 125 notifications and has assisted in another 275 cases while with the state police. She estimates she made 150 notifications for local police when she lived in Virginia Beach, Va., where she founded and ran her own hospice for five years before returning to her native Vermont.

When I make a death notification, the last thing I want to do is to try and calm them (the survivors) down, Nelson says, a common mistake well-meaning people make.

I tell them, Im not here to make you feel better, because nobodys going to be able to do that right now. But I can make this process much less complicated and less frightening for you. You will know what to expect, both physically and emotionally.

Like Fout-Kowalewski, Susan Bain Williams met Nelson when her husband died. Sumner Williams, 52, one of Vermonts pre-eminent maple experts, was killed Oct. 11, 1999 when a tractor at the University of Vermonts maple research center rolled over and the brush hog he was towing struck him in the head.

Nelson talked with the Williams children, Katharine, then 11, and Sumner, 7, then told their mother: Theyre afraid youre going to die, and you need to talk with them some more, Williams recalls.

She really hung tough with me for about two weeks. I hope no one has to be in my situation, but, if they are, my God, how will they get through it without her?

Americans, Nelson says, hurry the grieving process. And though theres no timetable, Nelsons experience with hundreds of families has led her to conclude it can take five years or more to resolve a sudden, unexpected death.

Were so ignorant about grief in this society, Nelson says. We dont have grief crutches. Or a grief wheelchair. Or a grief cast. Where, you know … people will understand we have a broken heart.

We have wonderful rituals of hellobirths, and christenings, and birthdays, and weddingsbut we dont do so well when its time to say goodbye.