In construction, you need to be a leader who is compassionate and empathetic. You need to have those tough and difficult conversations with people. No one better than a Death Coroner to give you some insight into that. Join Eric Anderton as he talks to Deputy Coroner for the Yolo County Sheriff’s Office, Harrison Furmidge about having difficult conversations. Learn how Harrison deals with having to tell a loved one that someone close to them has died. Find out how he deals with grieving families and why he never leaves them in an unstable position. Discover how he works with law enforcement and how to tell if someone is lying to you. Learn how to see the whole picture of the crime today!
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Death’s Witness: Learning From A County Coroner How To Have Difficult Conversations With Harrison Furmidge
Construction is a high-pressure and difficult job. I thought we would bring in someone who has an equally high-pressure and challenging job on the show, perhaps more so, and that is a coroner. My guest on the show is Harrison Furmidge. He is a Deputy Coroner in Yolo County, California. Harrison has many years of experience in death investigations. What he specializes in is having difficult conversations with people in crisis.
You, as a leader, may have many such opportunities to one extent or another in construction. I thought we would bring Harrison onto the show to gain some insights from him, both into what he does as a death investigator and how he handles people in a crisis situation. As I always say, enjoy my interview with Harrison and look for those insights that will help you to be a more effective leader and perhaps more compassionate and empathetic when you’re having those difficult conversations.
Also, read carefully because he’s going to give you some insights into how you can figure out whether or not people are lying, how to lay aside some of your preconceived notions about people and how to combine your intuition with facts to put together a picture of what’s happening. Thank you again for reading. Feel free to share this with other people that you think may benefit and give me some feedback as well. If you find this episode useful and out-of-the-box from the typical guests on the show, let me know. I’ll look for other guests who can give us some insights from outside of the realm of construction. Enjoy my chat with Harrison.
Harrison, welcome to the show.
I’m glad to be here.
You’re not my typical guest here on the show. I know that you do not have a typical line of work. Tell us a little bit about what you do for a living.
I work as a Deputy Coroner for the Yolo County Sheriff’s Office. I handle death investigations that ultimately lead to me determining a manner of death for someone who has passed away that falls within the purview of my work. It’s someone outside of the care of a physician or someone who has died in an unusual or violent manner typically. I work alongside a pathologist who will assign a cause of death and then I will determine a manner. Typically, manners are something like a natural accident, suicide or homicide. Ultimately, my job boils down to determining what manner of death it is.
What are some of the most challenging aspects of your chosen profession?
The scene investigations can be incredibly challenging, given the nature of the work. I see all manner of strange things, but ultimately, it’s all death investigation. I see violent deaths and particularly unsettling or disgusting situations because that’s within the purview of what I investigate. I don’t handle clean hospital passings away, typically where you die in your sleep or whatever the case is.
I’m the guy that deals with all the other stuff. The investigations themselves can be challenging. You never know what it is you’re going to come up with. Typically speaking, you don’t always know what’s going to upset you because even though I’ve been doing this for years, some things hit you unusually when you’re in the midst of the investigation. The other challenging thing about my job tends to be dealing with families since, inevitably, I have to work with whoever the next of kin is.
That can be someone close to the person. That could be someone that doesn’t like the person because of their family situation. It tends to vary and you get a variety of reactions from both of those things. Sometimes, navigating the family dynamics that you’re often walking headfirst into without any information about is particularly challenging.
I want to take a look at all of those. I would like to start with what you said first about how something hits you in a way that you’re not expecting. If you can give specific examples, that’s fine. Can you give us a little more detail on that? It’s interesting.
I can break that down into two groups of things. Sometimes when you’re doing a death investigation, you will have a particularly visceral reaction to something that you see, smell, touch or whatever the case is. That can be everything from dealing with a particularly decomposed body. You end up with an unpleasant reaction to the smell, touch or whatever the case is.
Generally, I’ve been blessed with the ability to walk that off, but sometimes something smells a particular way or feels a particular way and it can be unsettling. The other side of that is usually not so much that what you’re dealing with is particularly unpleasant but because it has some emotional connection to your life. Usually, my coworkers, you can sort through us and pick out who doesn’t like doing particular investigations.
It’s not that they can’t do them and do them professionally, but there are some investigations that we do not enjoy handling in any way, shape or form. One of my coworkers has young children. He does not like doing child deaths investigations of any kind because it’s emotionally trying for him in comparison to other death investigations. There are minor suicides.
I have a lot of trouble emotionally when it comes to dealing with suicides from a combination of my faith background and personal life. Those are trying emotionally. They can sneak up on you. Sometimes you run into a situation or a scenario that when you come up to it ties into your life in a fashion that you weren’t expecting. You have to work through that emotionally and do the job.
That’s interesting because people in a variety of different walks of life sometimes get blindsided in daily circumstances in ways that they weren’t expecting. It’s interesting for you to go into that. The next part of your answer was about working with the next of kin. The main reason I wanted to have you on the show is that you spend your career day after day having difficult conversations with people. The folks who are reading this rarely, if ever, will have a conversation with someone whose next of kin has died. I would like to talk with you about how you go through that process. How do you go through that process of working with the next of kin and having those difficult conversations?
That varies in terms of the process itself because every investigation is unique. You can draw similarities from them the longer you do it because some things remain the same or at least consistent. Usually, I have two scenarios. I have a scenario in which I’m face-to-face with the next of kin and I am delivering the bad news either because they’re the ones that found their family member deceased or they have shown up because they were looking for them for whatever reason.
I have to get a handle on where they’re going to be emotionally and tell them, “This is what we have found so far. This is what I’m going to do. These are the next couple of steps here.” The other scenario that I encounter more often than that is having to have a phone conversation with the next of kin. Sometimes that’s as straightforward as I have to call them out of the blue.
They have no warning. There’s nobody there with them or anything like that. I have to tell them because it has been difficult for me to locate them. They live in another state. I don’t know very much about who the phone number belongs to. I’m guessing based on a couple of law enforcement tools we have access to. Usually, I’ll get names, phone numbers, addresses or things like that.
I have to look at people’s age, where they live and whether or not I’ve found any information from the household or the person that’s deceased about who these names might be. I have to make an educated guess. If somebody is close in age to the person, I might be looking at a spouse, a brother or a sister. If they’re 20 to 30 years older, I might be looking at a parent, an aunt, an uncle or something like that. If they’re younger, I may be looking at a child or a younger sibling.
It’s a matter of figuring that out. I have to make that phone call. Sometimes if I’m lucky, what I can do is I can contact a local law enforcement agency and have them send somebody out to say, “This person has passed away. We need you to call the investigator that’s handling that case.” From there, they know, “So-and-so is dead. I need to call this person.” At that point, they have been prefaced with this person is dead. It’s a matter of me explaining what exactly has happened to them.
Let me ask real quickly. You’ve got two types of conversation. One is face-to-face and one is over the phone. Does the face-to-face one typically take place relatively soon after you’ve come onto the scene?
It’s almost immediately most of the time. It’s relatively rare for me to do an in-person death notification. Typically, that’s handled by our chaplaincy. We have a couple of them. If I’m having an initial face-to-face conversation with family members, it’s because they are there. Maybe that’s because they woke up in the middle of the night and their partner stopped breathing. It’s a variety of situations.
Usually, in those cases, the family has found the person either in some state of duress or they found them deceased. That’s almost always the first conversation that I have when I get wherever the investigation is happening. I’ll talk to law enforcement beforehand, usually outside of the building, right outside of the scene or whatever it may be. I’ll talk to the family immediately after that because what I have found in the time that I’ve been doing this is that they almost always want initial information.The basic principle in death investigation is to treat everything like it's a homicide. Click To Tweet
They may have been told something by law enforcement, but they don’t have an idea of what the process is after someone has died. Typically, what will happen is I’ll talk to them and tell them, “My name is Harrison. I’m the investigator that’s handling this case. I’ll identify them and make sure I know who they are.” If it’s a sister, brother, mother or whatever the case is, I make sure I know who I’m talking to. I’ll get whatever their initial information or reaction is.
Are you trying to read them as you’re going into the conversation?
I always have to because there’s this basic principle in a death investigation. It boils down to treating everything like it’s a homicide. If a family member has found this person, we don’t know what exactly has happened until we get into the investigation. I have to gauge whether or not they’re having an appropriate grief reaction from that person. That can be a variety of things.
Tell me about that. What’s an appropriate grief reaction?
It can be a variety of things. It can be everything from falling on the floor and crying or a shock. I’ve had some people that simply don’t know what to do with themselves. They’re not crying or having any emotional reaction at all. They’re just trying to process the fact that somebody is dead. It’s everything in between, like basic tears and the inability to think through what exactly is happening. Sometimes when you do your initial interview with someone, they will have trouble ordering their events.
It’s not because they’re lying to you per se. It’s usually because they’re still thinking through what it is that has led up to this because they’re still processing finding someone deceased and then they have to put that aside and backtrack. Sometimes you will see people that will struggle to order the events that led up to it. In this day and age, thankfully, with tech, they can take a look at their phone and go, “This is when I called this person. This is what I texted this person.”
In your experience, how long does it take someone to go through that ordering process? Many times, you can get into a confrontation with someone, let’s say in construction or something like that. You’re asking them about an incident and it comes out differently than somebody else is explaining it. How long does it usually take for someone to figure out that order and get a degree of coherence there?
It depends upon the person. Sometimes it is as fast as I talk to them. They tell me what’s going on, their initial reactions, and what they get initially. I do my investigation and come back. We have a conversation and they have figured it out. Sometimes it takes days. I’ve had investigations where I’ve talked to the family initially, gotten all the information, ordered it for my purposes and then gone back. I will do follow-up interviews with family before I close cases to see what it is they say. I’ll go through my notes and walk them through what they said or what we talked about initially.
That gives them the opportunity to say, “We went and found this thing. I thought that initially, but this is what happened.” Typically speaking, when I’m working with next of kin that we have determined are not involved in a homicide or anything like that, they’re pretty good at making sure they’re correcting information because they want the information to be correct. After the process for 1, 2 or 3 days, a lot of people are good at going back, thinking about it or looking for more information about it because they want to know what happened. That willingness to help is usually what orders things for them.
How do you know when someone is lying to you?
There are typically two ways that I determine that. Sometimes it’s a feeling and then I find something that contradicts what they’re saying. Sometimes I find something that contradicts what they’re saying and then I will go back, present it and see what they say. When you talk to people for a living about uncomfortable things, then you can ask this of the majority of law enforcement. It turns out there’s a science to figuring out when people are lying.
The majority of interrogators, law enforcement or things like that will acquire this sense over the course of their career because they spend so much time talking to people in interviews, interrogations or things like that. They will naturally start to pick up on facial expressions and body language that indicate when someone is being deceptive. I’m a layperson. This is all me having done a little bit of research over the years.
Usually, the thing that’s the best for me is I’ll talk to the person and they will tell me a story. What I want people to tell me is what their version of events is or whatever the case is. I will go and look at the environment and see if that story matches the environment because if someone is telling me, “I found him an hour ago. I talked to him two hours ago. He’s recently dead.” I go in, do my investigation and find out he has what we refer to as fixed rigor. It’s stiffness in the body that happens after death.
We use it to judge timelines and things. If he has fixed rigor mortis, he has been dead for at least twelve hours. I know either you’re lying or you’re misremembering things. That is when I can put that together, “Is this person appropriately grieving? Are they sad?” They’re saying, “I saw him two hours ago and now he’s dead.” In reality, they saw him at noon and now we’re pushing midnight because they called 911 at 6:00.
It has been two and a half hours of investigation. It took me an hour to drive out there and now he’s in rigor. Are they genuinely saying, “I saw him two hours ago and he was alive? He is in fully fixed rigor.” That’s how we have to discern when someone is not telling us the truth. We have to use the environmental evidence and determine, “Is this person lying to us? Are they grieving?” That’s affecting what it is they’re saying because they don’t remember the timeline correctly.
You go to the misremembering idea first before going to the lying idea if you don’t have a whole bunch of evidence and if you’re just beginning the case. Is that right?
Honestly, I try not to make any assumptions about what people are telling me upfront. The woman who trained me while still working for Sacramento County said something that stuck with me because she would have people tell her, “This person is lying to you.” Her thing was, “Whatever you tell me, truth or lie, even if I can tell that you’re lying to me, what you’re lying to me about and why is as important when you tell me the truth.” It’s because when someone lies to you, it tells you something about the investigation. Whatever they’re lying to you about is important.
There’s something there that they don’t want you to know for whatever reason. It can be as simple as they’re embarrassed or as complex as they’re responsible for this person’s death in some fashion. Maybe they shot them, stabbed them, poisoned them or whatever the case is. Figuring out why someone is lying to you almost always tells you something about the death investigation. The thing is that what they’re lying to you about is almost less important than their motivation for doing it because if you can discern what the motivation is, then you can piece together what it is they’re lying to you about anyway.
Let me ask you this. How is it that you are able to lay aside your preconceived notions about an environment that you’re entering so that you can do your job effectively?
It’s practice. You have to believe it as best you can and check your behaviors when you notice that.
What are you believing?
It’s that you’re being unbiased when you’re handling your investigation. You have to commit to being unbiased about it because it’s easy to listen to what somebody has told you and come up with a series of assumptions about what it is you’re walking into when that may not be reality. I had an investigation where the first responders were convinced it was a suicide. By the time I got there and had done my investigation, I was relatively certain that it might have been a natural death.People twist theories to suit facts, not facts to suit theories. Click To Tweet
During the process of handling the investigation, we had a moment where we were convinced it was a homicide until we ran some additional testing and then it came back around to being a natural death. The start to finish is a rollercoaster of trying to figure out what the heck had happened. At any point, had we assumed it was one of those things, we might not have gotten the full picture. You have to force yourself to go, “This is what I’m being told. Is this matching what I’m seeing?”
Even when you look at what you’re seeing, you have to make sure you’re not making assumptions about the missing pieces of it. There’s a line. I don’t know if it’s from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s writing, but it’s from a decent Sherlock Holmes movie. It goes something like, “One twists theories to suit facts, not facts to suit theories.” The idea is that when I’m working on a case, I should be adjusting what my perception of the situation is, not what’s in the situation.
I shouldn’t be manipulating my ideas, “This person has lividity in this position.” This person has told me that this has happened. I start to make an assumption about what I’m seeing, “This person told me this and I am seeing this.” I’ve defaulted to a particular assumption about it when the lividity might be telling me something else. I’m discounting it because somebody else has already said something.
That’s another thing I would like to talk about. You have to have difficult conversations with the people directly involved. As you come on the scene, you’ve got law enforcement, the first responders and all those kinds of things and they’ve got their perspectives. You’re relatively young and you do have experience doing this. How do you handle a situation where you’re coming on the scene and someone in authority has a certain point of view and perspective? As you come on the scene and look at it, it may be a bit different, which may lead to different perspectives, even potential conflicts. How do you handle that?
Generally speaking and this is my experience. I’ve been pretty thankful for it. We are so specialized in terms of what we do that usually, I don’t have a conflict with law enforcement and first responders because my government code or what gives me my powers is wide in its scope, but it’s a niche in what I can do with it. Usually, law enforcement likes to play nice with me because I make their lives a lot easier. When I’m handling my investigation, I don’t need the same things that they need to do things.
The solution to someone that has a, “This is what we want to do and how we want to do it,” idea about whatever it is we’re doing and then years of experience is deference works well because if there’s a way for me to do what it is I need to do and let them have their way, then that’s the way to go. I have certain things that I need from an investigation. It’s as long as I can get them and I am following my policy and procedure if I have somebody that is asking for something in particular. Let’s say I’m investigating a homicide, which is a complex investigation.
I have a lieutenant or somebody out there who has some ideas about what they think has happened and what they want to happen in the investigation to achieve whatever goal they have in their head. I will do my best to make that happen. Usually, part of that is communicating with whoever that is about what it is they want. That’s the first thing that I typically will do. That’s what that initial conversation with law enforcement is before I have any conversations with family.
I’ll get them to tell me, “This is what’s going on.” I’ll get their read on family, witnesses or whatever the case is. Almost always, before the end of that conversation, I’ll have some discussion, “What do you want from this? Is there evidence that you need to take back? Do you need his phone? Do you need drug paraphernalia? Are you taking the weapon? Are you towing the vehicle? Is there anything that you need to collect or want from this investigation? Is there some way that I can do this? Do I need to wait on your CSI to come over to take these photos?”
That way, it gives them an opportunity to say, “This is what we want and need.” That, in my experience, tends to completely avoid any conflict. The very few times that I’ve had law enforcement decide that they want to do something in a particular fashion that is opposed to what it is I’m doing is almost always when they don’t want to do something. While I’ve been doing this for a while, sometimes that’s not readily recognized by like law enforcement. It’s not their fault. They have been doing this for 20 to 30 years or whatever the case is.
Usually, at that point, my solution is to involve my boss and not in a, “I’m going to get you in trouble,” way. The thing I’ve found that works best when I’m talking to someone that has been doing this for a long amount of time and they want or don’t want to do something and I can’t convince them that it’s important for their investigation, my investigation is I will usually go, “That’s different than what our policy is. Let me call my boss and see if she will let me do that or if she has a better way of doing that or something that you will be more agreeable to.”
At that point, they’re talking with somebody that they view as either a superior or an equal. I get her on the phone, explain the situation to her and tell her what I need and why it’s in conflict with our policy. Usually, she will have a conversation with them over the phone and go, “This is our policy. This is why we need this.” It’s hearing it from somebody else or even having a conversation with that person and her going, “I see what you’re saying and why you’re saying it. We can do it differently this time.”
That’s okay. That almost always is the last resort solution to that conflict. Typically, the reason that’s happening is that, as you pointed out, I am younger and I haven’t been doing this for 30 years yet. Involving someone else that is higher up on the food chain, is paid more and has had an equal amount of experience typically turns that conversation with whoever it is into a conversation between equals as opposed to somebody that they don’t view as the same level of experience as them telling them, “We need to do this.”
You’re not making it an ego thing. You’re working the system to get what you need.
With a lot of these guys, it’s not anything malicious. The worst thing that I’ve ever seen is laziness. Generally speaking, I can work around that. If they’re not going to collect the drugs, I’ll collect the drugs. If they’re not going to collect the firearm, all collect the firearm. I can deal with that. In terms of being malicious about something, laziness is the easiest thing for me to combat. Usually, the problem is a matter of not accepting that I’m saying something, asking for something or wanting to do something for a reason.
Thankfully, that doesn’t happen often. Usually, when it comes from somebody that has a cooler title or more experience, that’s typically enough to get somebody to change their view on something. It’s the difference between hearing from your classmates, “This is how you solve this math problem,” versus hearing from the teacher say, “This is how you solve this math problem.” You automatically have a different reaction to people in a particular position than you do to people that are equivalent to you in terms of their position.
As you’re coming on the scene, do you have any personal routines that you go through to prepare yourself as you’re driving up?
What I tend to do is I take a ton of notes because while we do have digital photographs and a browser-based system for putting all of our reports in and everything like that, if for whatever reason something happens and something doesn’t get documented, if I have it on my notes, then we’re good to go. What I will do is typically I’ll have a conversation with law enforcement before I even get out there and get as much information as I possibly can. Drive time is usually me ordering my thoughts by writing everything down so that I can see.
I have a notepaper that has a fill-in-the-blank so that I don’t forget to ask a question or whatever the case is. When I’m driving there, I’ll usually spend the first couple of minutes ordering my thoughts by filling in everything that I possibly can and then looking at what do I need to find out because there’s a lot of that information that’s paperwork-related. It has to be in my reports. Once I get all of those things figured out, I can then focus on what about this scene or investigation is going to be important in terms of understanding what has happened.
After I’m done with that, I will usually spend the rest of the drive time working with my intern. We have interns that work for our office. They’re there to do investigative support for us. They take photos and sometimes handle the bodies. They will do anything we ask them to within reason. What I will do is have them drive our vehicles because we don’t have Code 3 vehicles so they can’t go light some sirens or anything like that.
I’ll let them figure out how to navigate the county and use that drive time while they’re navigating. That can be anything from me talking with them about what we’re potentially walking into and important things. For some of our senior interns, it turns into more of me quizzing them on what’s important to see where their knowledge base is at. Once they have experienced a couple of different things, they can start to differentiate on certain investigations what’s going to be important, like what we’re looking for and why we are.
Usually, we will go over anything potentially hazardous on the scene. If we’re going into a household that is an IV drug user’s house, we will have a conversation, “We’re not going to touch anything. We’re going to be careful where we step.” That serves as a reminder for me as well. Going from case to case, sometimes it’s nice to be able to talk to somebody else and go, “These are the things we’re going to worry about.” Mentally, I’m going, “These are the things we’re going to worry about,” on the way over there.
You’re going into a conversation with someone difficult. What is your end goal with that conversation? Do you want to do anything more than communicate the information to them? Is there anything more that you want to accomplish?During an investigation, never leave a family member in a position where they're unstable and potentially unsafe. Click To Tweet
Typically, the conversations initially are exactly that. They’re usually information communication. For the most part, when I have an initial conversation with a grieving family member, 90% of that is going to fall out of their heads. There’s almost always a follow-up conversation on Day 2 or Day 3 where we have to review the same information. Ultimately, the initial conversation that we have once I’m done with my investigation is me sorting out what I’ve found and let them know what it is.
Before I leave, typically, what I want is to get them to a state where they feel like if there’s something that comes up, if they need help or whatever the case is, I’m somebody that they can count on to help them. A lot of the time, when you deal with law enforcement, their caseload is much higher than mine is. They will go, “We will take the theft report. Maybe I’ll call you back if I find something. I’ll let you know when the report is ready.” It’s a lot more involved for us.
What I’ve found is that when I’m working with people that are upset because someone has died, I’m better off getting to a point with them where they feel like they can talk to me and that I’m calming and stable to be around if they need help figuring out a funeral home situation or trying to find their person’s keys or, “What do I do about the household? How do I get it secured?” I know things are happening correctly because they call me and say, “I have this problem. How can I solve this? What resource do I need to solve this? Who else can I talk with to solve this?”
What I don’t want is to ever leave a family member in a position where they’re unstable and potentially unsafe for whatever reason. It’s anything from, “My wife is dead. What else do I have to live for? My children have to know. I’m hysterical. I’m going to jump in the car and drive like that.” Those are all things we want to avoid. Usually, if I’m not the one that’s getting the person to that point, I make sure that I have a chaplain there to get them to that point.
That’s when I will then say, “I’m taking off.” Sometimes that means that I have to have them call a family member to come out and sit with them or whatever the case is. It’s a matter of judging the emotional stability there because once my investigation is done, it’s people’s aftercare. Somebody has died. There’s a level of trying to get them to a state emotionally where they can function. It’s not so much that I’m getting them to feel better. I’m getting them to a point where they can continue to work and get to a point where they feel better.
Is that typically within the realm of responsibility for a coroner? Is that something that you take on more than another person? How does that work?
There are some death investigators that do their job. Personally, this is part of the job. I’m blessed to work in a county where I have the time and I’m not looking at my watch because I’ve got another car crash or something that’s on the heels of this investigation and I do have to go, “I’m sorry for your loss. Bye.” Sometimes that’s the reality in certain situations. If I have a crash that’s shutting down five lanes of a freeway, I have the highway patrol calling me to get out there and do this removal. Unfortunately, I can’t spend the same amount of time with a family member that I might normally to make sure they’re completely stable.
That’s investigator discretion at that point. How much time you’re going to spend talking to family and getting them wherever in terms of their emotions is ultimately up to the investigator. Our job is to do the investigation, advise the next of kin of the situation, cause and manner and then provide whatever resources we need to provide for them to finish handling this. Nowhere does it say that we have to make sure that they feel better about the situation or anything like that. At least in my experience, part of doing a good job is doing that.
You’re not always going to achieve that because sometimes, people have certain situations that prevent you from doing that. At least making the effort and trying to reach them in an effective fashion is part of the job. It’s not in the job description. Read the job description. It’s pretty sterile and straightforward. If you’re going to be an effective death investigator, you have to be able to do that post-investigation care because these are the people that are going to paint that picture for you to write your report and close out the last chapter of someone’s life. It’s essential to the job, but I know that there are investigators that don’t do it.
There are a couple of more things I want to ask you about. You and I know each other, so I know your demeanor is a fairly steady demeanor. Is that typical for most death investigators? I’m a fiery guy. I’m emotional. It’s a whole spectrum. Is your demeanor typical for a coroner? Do you know some people that are more fired up than you are?
The majority of my coworkers are more animated than I am. I can tell you that almost every death investigator I’ve ever met, when I see them working a scene, they have cultivated a level and steady outward demeanor. If you’re in the middle of a storm, that’s what you have to have to control everything and be a calming presence because you know what’s going on. This is what you do for a living. Everybody else is experiencing the worst day of their life for the first time.
I have very animated coworkers when they’re not in the middle of doing their job. I’ve probably carried this in and out of my job a little bit more because that’s how I am as a person. It’s a helpful tool because there are only so many things you can bring to bear in a situation in which someone has died that are effective. Being calm is the only way to encourage that in other people around you.
How do you separate the intensity and the challenge of your vocation from the rest of your life? You’re married. You have other stuff that you do. Is there a big separation there? How do you handle that emotional aspect of it?
I can tell you what I do and then what your options are. I don’t separate it. I probably should more. I’m lucky enough to have a wife that works for an ER. I can talk about it and tell my wife, “These things have happened. This was particularly difficult for whatever reason.” She gets it. She may not be dealing with dead people all the time, but she’s dealing with people who are dying and everything that goes into that.
She’s dealing with family members who are crazy because they have an injured or dying family member and then keeping the people she’s trying to treat that are difficult for whatever reason. That, for me, is the easiest way to handle things. I usually have somebody that I’m talking to about whatever it is that’s going on, even if it’s not something that bothers me. I have an investigation and it’s pretty straightforward for whatever reason. I’ll usually tell my wife about it.
I’ve also surrounded myself by necessity with people who are okay with listening to what I do or at least okay with it. Some of them are relatively interested in it. When I start telling a story or whatever the case is, they’re engaged with it as opposed to going, “I don’t want to hear about that.” Generally, people like that don’t spend a lot of time around me. I don’t have them in the circle of people I spend time with and talk to because I’m pretty upfront with what I do and what goes into that.
In other words, to handle it, you do talk about it with people. You’re selective about who you talk to. To one extent or another, you have to put people in your life or have people in your life that you are able to talk to.
Absolutely. There are some conversations that some people can handle and other people can’t. My wife can take it all. Some of my friends are like, “You can tell me in general terms what has happened. I’ll listen to it but please, no specifics.” That’s how I learned to handle it. A lot of that stems from the gal that taught me how to do this to begin with. She was someone who would go home and do the same thing.
After we were finished with a particular scene, whether violent, nasty, emotional or any of those things, she would do this thing where she would stop two hours before the end of the shift and turn around. She had a big enough desk where I would sit there and work on whatever. She would sit and work on her computer. She turned around and went, “Do you want to talk about your feelings or anything before we go?” It came off as a joke, but it was her genuinely going, “If you need to talk about something, now is the time. I’m here for you.”
It’s good to have that support there, even among your peers at work, so that you can process things together.
I have a chaplain on my phone. I talk to him once a month about a variety of things and anything from, “I need you to help me with this notification,” or he just wants to talk. That’s our safety net. Technically, we have a chaplain. That is what they are there for. They’re the ones that are supposed to take care of us. On a certain level, a lot of people in my profession are probably like, “I’m the person that is supposed to be able to handle everything.” We have a tendency to be like, “I don’t need to talk to a chaplain.” We figure out how it is we’re going to do it.
One of my coworkers is great at his job. He knows exactly what he’s doing. He’s a compartmentalizer. While he’s at work, he’s at work. He’s on and he’s got it. He’s a great investigator. On Friday at 5:00, off goes the computer and out goes the email on what needs to happen when he’s not in the office. The dude is done. He puts it all away, goes home, enjoys himself, spends time with his family and has a normal life. Come Monday morning at 7:00 AM, the computer goes again and he’s back to it. That works for him. He has been doing it for years. As far as I can tell, that seems to be how he functions. You get varying degrees of that across everybody.
Some people forever are working. My bosses like that. She doesn’t know how to turn it off. I can’t tell you whether or not that’s a good or a bad thing. She’s always ready to go. She’s always stable. She always seems to be vested and invested in what it is she’s doing even if she’s on vacation. She took three days off for her birthday. I got an email from her because she read one of the pathologist’s reports and caught some mistakes. It varies. It’s a matter of the investigator having to figure out what’s going to work for them to keep doing their job without losing their minds.As a death investigator, it's good to surround yourself with people who are okay with listening to what you do. Click To Tweet
There are a couple of more questions here. Let’s say you’re in an extreme situation. Tensions are high. What do you do to diffuse that situation?
This is always going to be a case-by-case situation. Generally speaking, what you’re talking about breaks down into two general categories of situations. This is not a lay person’s breakdown because I end up in situations that are a little different from the average person. If there is something high tension, it comes in two different types. One is I have a family member that’s having some crisis. That can look like them screaming, crying, falling on the floor or throwing things. That is one situation.
The other situation looks like something has happened. There are people that are potentially dangerous. If I’m investigating a drug overdose or something like that and there are people in that household that have a criminal history or whatever the case is and we’ve got law enforcement out there, that’s already a high-tension situation. Somebody has died and chances are it’s because they were doing something illegal.
Everybody knows somebody has got drugs and paraphernalia somewhere. We’ve got some guy in here asking everybody questions like, “When was the last time you smoked meth? When was the last time he shot up heroin? When did you see him last? What time? Did he have a needle sticking out of his arm that you removed?” That’s all way more than any of the people I typically talk to in situations like this ever want to hear. They don’t want to answer questions because you’re a cop.
I do have genuinely two police officers with me with guns, badges, uniforms and the whole nine yards. That situation is by necessity tense if you’ve got meth on you and I’m investigating why this person is dead and I’m asking you, “Does he smoke meth?” You’ve got these two police officers trained to eyeball people for carrying controlled substances and all the things you’re not supposed to do. If you say one thing and they start asking questions, then it’s like, “Is somebody going to jail?”
There are either two situations. The one is by necessity. That is when I have people that are truly uncooperative or potentially dangerous. I have to use law enforcement as a shield to do my investigation. Maybe I don’t get to talk to the people that are involved nearly as much, I have to talk to them one-on-one or it’s me, them and a guy with a gun and a taser. That’s not always a productive conversation. The second solution is to differentiate myself from law enforcement in a meaningful fashion.
If I’ve got a situation like this, maybe I get somebody who seems the most emotionally stable. I’ll talk to them and leave the 3 or 4 other people out on the front porch with one of the officers. I’ve got an officer inside. He’s watching the body or whatever the case is. I’ll have this conversation with this person and them, “I’m a death investigator. I don’t care. If you’re smoking meth with him, that’s fine. I’m not going to arrest you for it. That’s not the purview of what it is I’m doing.”
I’ll make it clear to them that it’s not about them, “It’s about your friend who’s in the back who’s dead. That’s what I care about. I care about him. I care about finding out what happened to him. I’m going to catch it. If he’s doing drugs, I’m going to know. I’m going to run his blood. We’re going to get the toxicology report. We will find out. If you tell me beforehand he was doing drugs, then I will know that.”
Usually, the way to diffuse that tension is to get people out of whatever the situation is, typically, it’s outside and have one of my officers sit on that like, “Don’t interact with them. Leave him be. If they want to talk to you, that’s fine. Let them chill. Let them not be in the situation where there’s a dead body on the floor three feet from them. Let them talk to each other. That’s fine. I don’t care if they talk to each other.”
I can target the people I need to talk to who have information. Usually, when I’m talking to a group of people, I will get a series of things where this person says, “I saw him at this time. I got a text from him at this time.” That could be useful if I’m trying to put together a timeline or something like that or get a sense of who it is I’m dealing with. Generally speaking, I can pick out the person that is either the most emotionally stable or has the most information. They saw what had happened. They were talking to them right before it happened.
You will separate them out of the situation, work with them in that environment and talk to them in such a way so that they understand that you’re not there to arrest them or investigate any criminality. It’s not exactly any criminality because you’re going to see some criminality.
It’s any time you walk into a situation like this. The easiest one to have this discussion about is a drug overdose typically. If someone lives in a household where that’s a common thing, you’re going to see paraphernalia, the meth pipe, the crème brûlée blowtorch used for liquefying your solid meth or whatever it is. I’m not dumb. The officer is not dumb. The person we’re talking to is not dumb. We all know what’s going on here. We’re all aware that this person did drugs. You might do drugs. That might be your pipe but it’s different in a death investigation.
I’m there to figure out what has happened. Everybody has agreed to push the pause button on, “You’re going to jail. You’re doing whatever,” until I’m done. I leave, take the person with me, give somebody my card and try to figure out my side of the investigation. It’s like a timer. After a certain amount of time, then the game is back on. If you smoke some meth, jump in your car and drive off and one of the officers pulls you over, the timeout is over. It’s back to the usual.
Sometimes you have to establish that. Sometimes that’s the officer saying, “It’s cool. Don’t worry about it. I will catch up with you another day. I understand you’ve got something on you that normally we would arrest or search you for. He’s doing a death investigation. We’re not here for that.” Sometimes it’s me saying that because it’s difficult occasionally to differentiate between what I am and what a normal deputy sheriff is.
Almost always, that conversation either occurs in a situation where I’m talking to a group of people. I have to say that to all of them so they all understand the unspoken rules of this interaction or separate somebody out and have that conversation with them. Usually, that’s enough. Once people have been moved out of the scene and can sit, talk to each other, and not feel like they’re being watched by law enforcement, it typically diffuses.
Once I have somebody out in a way that I can talk to and tell them, “I’m not like a normal cop. This is what I’m doing,” that brings their anxiety down. They will talk to me. A lot of that is environmental management in terms of how, who you’re talking to and when. It’s easy to get confrontational when you have law enforcement that’s used to having a strong command presence because that’s what they have to have. That doesn’t work for our investigations. It’s a lot more finesse than having just a strong command presence.
Don’t get me wrong. Sometimes we have to have a command presence. If there’s somebody wandering into a room while we’re doing an investigation or whatever the case is, I have to be able to turn it on. It’s something that I don’t usually use because I don’t need to. Typically, I have law enforcement that can manage that thing. A lot of my conflict de-escalation is a matter of moving people out of the situation, separating them and calming them down individually.
As we wrap up here, what are three action items that we can take away here that would help us prepare for what you do every day, which is having difficult conversations? What would the three pieces of advice or action items you can give us?
Number one is going to sound intuitive, but it’s a lot more difficult to do at the moment than you might think. You got to stay calm in dealing with anybody. That’s not to say I remain emotionless. Regardless of what the situation is, being the calm voice of reason in the room is almost always the position that you want to be in because when you’re dealing with someone high on emotions, you have to be stabilizing for them. Otherwise, you’re not going to get anywhere.
The second thing is to understand what it is they’re going through as best as you can. I have no children, so I don’t know anything about what it feels like to have a child die on me. A lot of people have had pets die in their life. A lot of people have had other people die in their life. It’s about finding a parallel experience that you can draw on and think, “How was I feeling at that moment? What was going through my head? How can I apply this to the conversation that I’m about to have?”
Following on from that, the third one is respecting that the person is having a moment of vulnerability. When you’re in that situation where you’re in crisis and you’re the emotional one, you would hope that the person that’s dealing with you is calm and has it all together. Also, they understand that regardless of who you are or what you do with your life, be it a CEO or you’re driving a tractor, you’re a person.
It’s important to understand that the positions will be reversed at some point in your life. You want that person to treat you with respect and understand you’re a person. It’s just that something horrific has happened or whatever the case is. They should still be treating you like they would if you weren’t in crisis in terms of how they’re thinking about you.
Stay calm, put yourself in their shoes and then respect their vulnerability. I appreciate that. Here’s one last question. Why did you get into death investigation?
It’s a lot more straightforward than people are expecting. I knew I wanted to work in law enforcement in high school, but I did not want to chase, wrangle and taser people. I was not interested in having the people I was trying to deal with try and run away from me because that was not my thing. I was not terribly confrontational. I had very little interest in that, but I was interested in investigating. I had a friend in high school whose mother was the Supervising Deputy Coroner at Sacramento County.
She went, “I hear you’re interested in law enforcement. You got to know if you’re going to be able to handle a dead body. Would you like an internship?” I went, “That’s investigative experience. I’m going to be around the worst possible scenario. Somebody is dead. This should be good for me, despite what I decide to do.” After four years of working there and being in college, I realized that I was pretty good at it. I stuck with it at that point.
Harrison, I appreciate your time. The insights you’ve shared have been tremendous. This is a nice change of pace for my audience. They will have many things they can take away from what you shared here. Thanks for joining us.
It was a pleasure.
Thank you for reading. I hope you enjoyed my conversation with Harrison and walked away with some key insights into how to have difficult conversations. If you’re a construction company owner, think about the folks in your organization who are either in leadership roles or coming into leadership roles. To make that shift from building projects into a leadership role where you’re more responsible for building people and teams can be a deep challenge for many people. That’s why I’ve developed a leadership program called The Shift.
If you would like to learn more about that program and see if it’s something that would be a fit for the leaders in your company, please contact me on my website ConstructionGenius.com/contact. Put your details in there and we can jump on the phone for ten minutes and figure out if or how I may be able to help you with the development of the leaders in your organization because you know that the profitability of the projects that you run day in and day out is a direct reflection of the quality of the leadership that you have in your company. If there’s a way to develop that leadership and upgrade it, that’s something that you want to pay attention to. Reach out to me on my website and contact me. Thanks again for reading.
About Harrison Furmidge
Harrison Furmidge is a Deputy Coroner for the Yolo County Sheriff’s Office. He handles death investigations that ultimately lead to determining a manner of death for someone who has passed away that falls within the purview of his work. It’s someone outside of the care of a physician or someone who has died in an unusual or violent manner typically. He works alongside a pathologist who will assign a cause of death and then he will determine a manner.