Bob Young took a deep breath and knocked on the door.

It was before dawn and the house was dark and silent. Young wished for a brief moment that he could turn back and go home and not have to do what he came there to do.

When the homeowner answered and saw the Piscataquis County sheriff’s chief deputy at his front door in uniform, he knew.

“It’s bad, isn’t it?” the man asked.

It was. The man’s adult child had been killed in an automobile crash just after midnight in the town of Parkman. Young had come to deliver the news.

For every fatal car accident in Maine, or homicide, or suicide, or even some overdose deaths, there is a period between the time when police respond and when the name of the deceased is released to the public. The knock on the door is the reason: Someone needs to notify the next of kin.

Young has made dozens of notifications in his 32 years in law enforcement – he made three that morning to families of two victims from the same fatal crash – but still hasn’t found a way to make them easier.

The day after that long night, Young opened the department’s Facebook page and started writing.

“I tried to think of what I could say that would in some way bring comfort or at least not bring unnecessary pain. The truth is, while there are very wrong ways to do this, there is no good way, there are no perfect words,” he wrote. “Here’s what you learn in these times of life that we all share. Life is an extraordinary gift; grab it with all you’ve got and live each day as if it matters, because it surely does.”

Young’s moving post attracted more attention than any other he’s written since his department’s Facebook page launched. It had been shared more than 450 times and there were roughly 130 comments under it, most thanking Young for his eloquence. Some even shared their own experiences of being notified by police that a family member had died unexpectedly.

Notifying next of kin is one of the most difficult things a law enforcement officer has to do. These days, the task occurs more frequently in Maine because of the rapid rise in drug overdose deaths – 272 last year, the highest on record, along with 24 homicides, 155 motor vehicle fatalities, and 225 reported suicides.

John B. Rogers, director of the Maine Criminal Justice Academy, said recruits are taught how to conduct themselves when notifying a family of a loved one’s death – always do it in person, try to go in pairs, be direct – and he said officers generally bring more compassion now than they did 20 years ago.

But Rogers said nothing prepares you for actually having to do it.

“It’s just the job some days,” he said, recalling the many instances he had to make notifications when he was a police officer in Orono. “You might reflect on it afterwards and some cases may stay with you, but it’s one of those things that just comes with the work.”

Young said most notifications stay between him and the family member, and he’s OK with that, but he felt compelled to open up last month.

“I guess on that particular day, it just kind of wore on me,” he said. “It occurred to me that in all this talk that’s going on right now about police work, this is a side of it that people just don’t see.”

THE PERSPECTIVE FROM BOTH SIDES

The Rev. Kate Braestrup has been the chaplain for the Maine Warden Service for the last 15 years. She estimates that she has accompanied wardens on dozens, perhaps more than 100, next-of-kin notifications during that time.

But Braestrup has been on the other side of that conversation, too.

Twenty years ago, on Patriot’s Day morning, her husband, Maine State Police Trooper James Andrew Griffith, was patrolling Route 1 in Warren. A vehicle passed him traveling well above the posted speed limit. So Griffith tried to make a U-turn to pursue the speeding car. His cruiser was struck broadside by a commercial truck full of ice. He died instantly, only a few days shy of his 40th birthday.

The accident occurred only about a mile from the couple’s home in Thomaston.

Braestrup remembers the Thomaston police chief, Edward Grabherr, who is now deceased, coming to her door. The couple had four young children.

“I remember the look on his face, but I can’t remember anything else around him,” she said. “And he was talking, but I really don’t remember what he was saying.”

Braestrup now knows that it’s common for people in those situations to suffer from auditory exclusion, temporary hearing loss brought on by trauma or high stress. When she grasped the reality that her husband was indeed dead, her first question was: “Where is he? Can I see him?” The chief told her, “Oh you don’t want to see him,” and politely refused her request.

“I know they were trying to protect me because my husband’s body had been badly damaged,” Braestrup said. “But that instinct was wrong.”

In her role as chaplain for the Maine Warden Service, the Rev. Kate Braestrup has accompanied wardens on dozens of next-of-kin notifications over 15 years. But she has experienced the phenomenon from the other side, too, when she learned about the accidental death of her state trooper husband 20 years ago.

In her role as chaplain for the Maine Warden Service, the Rev. Kate Braestrup has accompanied wardens on dozens of next-of-kin notifications over 15 years. But she has experienced the phenomenon from the other side, too, when she learned about the accidental death of her state trooper husband 20 years ago. Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal

She eventually insisted that she be allowed to see him and, likely because her husband had been a trooper, it was allowed, although three officers accompanied her.

Today, letting a family member see a loved one’s body is much more common, and accepted, she said, although each agency has its own protocol.

Braestrup estimates that, among warden service cases, at least 90 percent of loved ones who are notified about a death ask to see the body. In almost every case, the warden service allows it.

“I’ve never had anyone say they wish they hadn’t,” she said. “But we have had people who said they wish they had gotten the chance.”

In addition to her role as chaplain, Braestrup instructs Maine Criminal Justice Academy recruits on how to conduct next-of-kin notifications. She said the most important thing she tells them is to be confident.

“I tell them, ‘All of us are going to die. All of us will lose someone we can’t bear to lose.’ That’s been true of every human being who has ever lived,” she said. “We need to approach people with this in mind and also with the understanding that they can sustain this blow and move forward.”

Braestrup doesn’t always share her own story when she does next-of-kin notifications, but sometimes she lets the people know that she, too, has been where they are. And she came through.

SEEING DEATH ‘ON A REGULAR BASIS’

York County Sheriff William King said his deputies seem to be making next-of-kin notifications more frequently than ever.

Of the 272 overdose deaths last year, 38 were in York County, second only to Cumberland County. The area sees its share of fatal crashes and suicides, too.

This year, after a particularly deadly stretch in York County, King invited Braestrup to talk to his deputies about how to handle such situations.

“It really struck me how much death they see on a regular basis,” the sheriff said.

One of King’s deputies, Levi Johnson, has been on the job about a year but his time on patrol has actually been less than that. He graduated from the criminal justice academy in December and finished his on-the-job training in April.

He did his first next-of-kin notification only about two weeks ago and said no amount of training really prepared him for what to expect.

“It was late, after midnight, and I was on my own,” Johnson said. “Usually, it’s a two-man thing, but I had to go alone. I was pretty nervous about it. I didn’t want to say the wrong thing. But they say not to beat around the bush, so I just said, ‘I’m very sorry to inform you …'”

Johnson declined to reveal any more information about how the person died, out of respect for the family. He did say that the death was unexpected and that the person being notified was a spouse and there were children present as well.

“It was silent for a long time,” Johnson said. “I didn’t want to change the subject or try to say anything that might make it worse, so I just let it be silent.”

Johnson said his supervisor arrived shortly thereafter and helped answer questions and see if there was anything else they could do.

Now that his first is out of the way, Johnson said he feels confident the next one will be easier.

“That’s sort of weird to say, though. I mean, it shouldn’t be easy,” he said. “I’d be OK if I never had to do one again, but that’s just not realistic.”

Young, the chief deputy in Piscataquis County, said he’s done dozens of notifications in his 32 years in law enforcement. As chief deputy, he now tries to do them all.

“It’s the toughest thing we do and I don’t want to assign that to someone else,” he said. “I guess that’s part of leadership: Don’t give the tough stuff to someone else.”

A couple of years ago, Young attended a community meeting with a woman whose house he had already visited a few years before for a death notification. Because some time had passed, he thought he would ask her how she was doing.

“She looked like she wanted to kill me,” he said. “She said, ‘I don’t even like to look at your face. Every time I see your face, I’m reminded of the worst day of my life.'”

Young said he understands why the woman felt that way, but her words stung just the same.

‘THE PARTS THAT STAY WITH YOU’

Braestrup said she still remembers the first time she had to console a family after an unexpected death. A young person had drowned in Sebago Lake and she was asked to meet a warden at the scene.

As she drove to the house, she couldn’t help but think of what she might say. Then she remembered her own experience. By the time she arrived, she was in tears.

As it turns out, she didn’t have to say the words “Your loved one has died.” A warden had already done that. She just had to be there.

“It was a good lesson right off – that you don’t show up with all the answers,” Braestrup said. “You can let the mourner tell you what they need. And believe it or not, they will.”

Even 15 years and countless notifications later, she said they are always profound.

“You are there with them for this hinge moment, this moment where their life changes forever, and that can be intimidating,” she said. “But I’m always incredibly honored that I get to be part of it.”

While there are standard guidelines for making notifications, it’s not like military deaths, which follow a strict protocol. Each law enforcement agency handles notifications a little differently.

Notifications are, in many ways, antithetical to police work. Officers need to be emotionally detached and almost clinical in other parts of their work.

Braestrup said most families’ reactions follow the same line. They break down. They express disbelief. They ask unanswerable questions like, “How could this happen?” Sometimes, they blame themselves.

“The eerie ones are when people don’t react,” she said.

Rogers, the criminal justice academy director, remembers once during his time in Orono, a teenage girl died in a car accident. When he went to her parents’ home to notify her mother, the woman dropped to the floor. It turned out the mother was diabetic and the news literally shocked her system. To make matters worse, Rogers knew her. She was a municipal employee.

That dynamic can be common in Maine, particularly in smaller communities.

Young said he remembers one woman who ran out of her home screaming after he told her about her loved one’s death. She had a heart attack on the spot and almost died herself. One man threatened to punch him in the face.

Rogers and Braestrup said things have changed significantly in the last two decades. In general, law enforcement officers approach the situation with more empathy.

They said it’s never OK to pass judgment, such as in a case of an overdose death or a person who was driving drunk when they were killed. They said it’s important to come armed with as much information as you can because families will have questions. They said it’s OK to cry. It’s OK to be human.

That’s what Young was trying to demonstrate when he wrote his Facebook post: This is the human side of being a police officer. After more than three decades, he hasn’t lost that feeling.

Since the morning of July 30, Young has not had to knock on another door, but he knows it’s only a matter of time.

“When I became a police officer, it was to make my community safer and chase bad guys,” he said. “But, you know, most of the job – certainly the parts that stay with you – are not that.”