Grief, healing


July 16, 2014

Autopsies by Michele Dwyer.

You haven’t quite experienced the truest, shittiest portion of your life until you have two autopsy reports in front of you…one depicting the details of your husband of 26 years who committed suicide, and the other depicting the details about your new love, the one who dropped dead 4 months after you met him, 16 months after your husband’s death. Physical details of the dead men that you have loved, and lost. My sarcasm shocks even me, it skirts around my fear that I am indeed going to break this time.

Each of these men, a medical examiner’s number now, each of them reduced to a toe tag and a plastic bracelet. Each of them dissected in the same building with the clinical precision and separation from the living that only a mortician could possess. I wonder if my love’s bodies were cut open on the same steel table. Cut open, organs pulled out, weighed and measured; body fluids given banal descriptions with lifeless colors such as brown, straw yellow, dark red, milky.

Lips that I’ve kissed described as ‘unremarkable’. Mouths that formed my name, that spoke of love and hope and futures to me, now described as having ‘no abnormalities’, meaning – nothing special here. Necks that I’ve wrapped my arms around, kissed and breathed their smells in thru my nostrils, burying my head into their safe places, now described as nothing more than ‘neck’. The parts of my men that steadied my feet solidly on the ground with their love, I now tread so softly around fearful that the recent descriptions of them will taint my locked away life.

Each beautiful body placed on a cold steel table, witnesses present and identified, medical students with clipboards and plastic blue gloves ready to outline and organize parts of the men that I’ve cherished. Bodies that made me catch my breath to look at them, now only corpses, rigor mortis noted, the scheduled 0900 autopsy.

Hearts were removed first, weighed and dissected. Hearts that I lovingly listened to beating as I lay on the strong chests that held them. Chests that I traced my fingers upon, maybe even tracing over the spots that would be sliced with a scalpel.

Eyes, four of them brown in color, with irises that measured in diameter the same, sclera that was clear. Those eyes once twinkled to look at me, with smiles and love in them. Eyes that sometimes had tears washing over the sclera, for all of the reasons that make eyes do exactly that.

Scars from surgeries that I knew the stories of, a deep cut on one finger that was described as ‘recent’. I had looked at that cut, I remember telling him that it didn’t need stitches when he’d asked. I wonder, now that he’s dead, and a surgeon has described it as ‘deep’, I wonder if I was wrong about the stitches. I wonder why I’m wondering.

The dura of two brains that had read me stories, gray matter that built me bird houses, fences, kitchens from scratch. Brains that knew what was wrong with my car, what was wrong with me, and could fix us both. Brains that I loved as much as their beating hearts.

My sarcasm leaves. My sadness takes over, the familiar exhaustion from the craziness of it all: two men, two deaths, two years, two autopsies, two boxes of momentos. Their deaths start again to do battle with my life. My white flag goes up one more time. I want my men back. I am prepared for the fallout that would most assuredly present itself should the universe grant this request. I would move far away, I would leave this place, leave them, if only they would take another breath and cough back into life. I want them to walk this Earth again, upright and strong like I remember. I want them off the steel table. I don’t want their bodies cut up.

A medical examiner tore thru my people, my persons, my significant others, my husband, my boyfriend, my family, my life. He examined their outsides, the insides, but he missed the goddamned point. He missed the pieces of the parts, the stuff that was mine, his, ours. He mangled what gave me love, he cut through my sacred ground.

I’m left now with the stuff of sterile reports, and my self-induced gut twisting confirmation that these men are indeed dead, are indeed never coming back as whole people ever again. They’ve been cut up, sewn back together, and the Wizard of Oz is just some fucked up pipe dream, for real.

I knew that. I really did. But now I find myself questioning this: just how much more witnessing of my love can I take.


Michele Dwyer, RN, IBCLC, has worked as a registered nurse in obstetrics for the past 26 years in Central New York state. Her husband took his own life on October 22, 2012, leaving her and their three children to slog through a life that up until that day, had seemed pretty ordinary. Michele has always loved to write, but writing has now taken on new meaning: self-preservation while maintaining sanity.

Jennifer Pastiloff, Beauty Hunter, is the founder of The Manifest-Station. Jen’s leading one of her signature retreats to Ojai, Calif. over New Years. Check out for all retreat listings and workshops to attend one in a city near you. Next up: South Dakota, NYC, Dallas, Kripalu Center For Yoga & Health, Tuscany. She is also leading a Writing + The Body Retreat with Lidia Yuknavitch Jan 30-Feb 1 in Ojai (2 spots left.) She tweets/instagrams at @jenpastiloff.

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  • Reply Rowdy July 16, 2014 at 11:08 am

    Whoa, that was raw. I was riveted. It is a hell of a piece of writing.

    • Reply Michele July 17, 2014 at 6:47 pm

      Thank you..

    • Reply sandy December 29, 2014 at 1:27 am

      So sorry for your loss. I lost my fiance, my soulmate, my best friend july 22, 2014. Im still devastated. He went for a nap and i went up to wake him and found him dead. My world shattered, the earth fell away, my soul left my body and my heart exploded inside of me. He died of a heart attack, in his sleep, was within minutes so the coroner said. Its so sick and so .sad that someone we once loved, touched, made love ti, laughed with, is now reduced to ashes in a fucking jar. So sad.

      • Reply michele February 7, 2015 at 4:29 pm

        Sandy….I am so sorry for YOUR loss….so so sorry. Christmas had to be hell for you. Hell, your whole existence is still raw.. I do feel your pain. I really, really do. I hope you always talk when you want to, and are quiet when you need to, and sleep when you can, and write if it helps.

  • Reply Burns the Fire July 16, 2014 at 11:39 am

    My heart aches to read your story. People may die, but (I believe) love lives forever as we pass it on through the generations. WIshing you growing peace, acceptance and as much love as you can experience in this amazing life. I’m so glad you can write.

    • Reply Michele July 17, 2014 at 6:48 pm

      I believe too…thank you

    • Reply sandy February 7, 2015 at 7:14 pm

      I have good days and bad days. I try not to think about him. I was sick all through xmas which was a blessing in disguise so i slept through most of it.

  • Reply Ursula July 16, 2014 at 11:52 am

    It is hard to hit ‘Like’ on this writing. Especially because I survived the death of man I loved deeply. So, read this ‘Like’ as ‘Respect’ and ‘Support’.

    • Reply Michele July 17, 2014 at 6:49 pm

      Ditto, sister in sadness…..thank you.

    • Reply sandy February 7, 2015 at 7:20 pm

      I do write in a journal, because i dont want to forget him if god forbid one day i lose my memory. I will be passing the journals on to our kids when i die which hopefully wont be for a long time. They dont need anymore grief right now. God bless you and im sorry for your loss.

  • Reply Lauren July 16, 2014 at 12:28 pm

    My child, whose autopsy report’s final line read, “The cause of death was inconclusive. …” Indeterminable, unreasonable, inconceivable. And unknowingly, a gateway into the pain that flew into that open hole 18 months later when my twin died. Suddenly. Inexplicably. My wandering daydreams for my child, every memory intertlaced with Us….. and I am left to drift, cast about, flounder. But the paper. The autopsy report shows, they Were.

    • Reply Michele July 17, 2014 at 6:51 pm

      Yes…it does. They were here…mine, yours, everyone’s person was here. Thank you

  • Reply nicciattfield July 16, 2014 at 12:40 pm

    I feel really sad for you. I remember when my brother’s body was seen to belong to the state, no longer alive, and me thinking….but you can’t take him, he’s not yours, he’s our family member. He wasn’t, but no state, no doctor, nobody else can ever understand the memories or the reality of the connections which exist beyond science. They are not a part of the story, but later on, so many years later, for me, they are the only story, as i hope they will be for you too.

    • Reply Michele July 17, 2014 at 6:52 pm

      I’m working on it…thank you for your kindness. I’m sorry for the loss of your brother.

  • Reply Mara July 16, 2014 at 2:26 pm

    I read my beloved’s autopsy, too, though we knew clearly what caused his death. I just couldn’t not. I had to know everything I could know. But really, how creepy, to read of some stranger handling the body of MY beloved, naked, exposed, of someone that had no idea, no idea of the heart & soul that had inhabited that flesh cutting it, commenting on it, touching him last … that was MY lover, my partner. No one should touch him even in death, but me….

    To add to the surrealism of this experience, I actually laughed while reading it. Yes. That’s what I said. I laughed at one point while reading my beloved’s autopsy. No, make that twice. I guess it’s that thing they say about humor as tension relief. As the author noted, they use the term “unremarkable” to denote anything that isn’t attributed to the cause of death. When I read “unremarkable genitalia” (he’d died in a car wreck from head trauma when the truck flipped, so nothing below the neck affected his passing), I bust out laughing at the absurdity of it (he was quite remarkable in this area, I’d say 😉 But I admit my bias 😉 )…. I also chuckled when the examiner concurred with the common opinion of all of us that loved and adored my silly, kind hearted man’s amateur tattoo (a harmless and somewhat hilarious result of a drunk night in his 20’s 🙂 ) that it was “a crude smiley face tattoo” (meaning unskilled, not vulgar I’m sure)… I always said that if I didn’t know what it was, I’d think his small children had drawn on him …..

    • Reply Michele July 17, 2014 at 7:01 pm

      I love what you just wrote about your man, Mara.. There was a single blade of grass noted inside my husband’s mouth. I never saw him chew on grass. Ever. I will never know why it was there. But I agree with you: there has never been anything that I have ever regretted knowing about the deaths of my men…I asked a lot of questions, sought out a lot of people, someday I might write about my sleuthing. Thank you..

      • Reply Mara July 17, 2014 at 10:55 pm

        Well I’m glad you like what I wrote, Michele, but I must now say – what the hell was wrong with me the other day? Not about the autopsy – that’s normal in the crazy world of loss, as we know…. but when I commented, I was so amazed that not only did someone else read the autopsy & feel so very much like I did, and, shared so fully about it, that I had to tell MY story (one I’ve told to very few) as a means of relief, and relating…And then neglected to offer the rest, that was really much more important in that moment – the recognition of what you said in another reply, the surrealism of your own loss – and my deep, deep sadness for you having to live through what truly must feel utterly unbelievable …. I’m just sorry, Michele. So very soul level sorry. No sense to any of it from where I sit. I’d wonder about the stitches, too if it were me (silly as that seems, huh?), and the blade of grass (what the??) as Dali-esque details of the cruel enigma of it all …. Though I hope you wrote/shared it for you, I do thank you anyway.Your story helps me. If it ever does feel right for YOU to share your sleuthing stories, I”m sure many will also hold that space for them, for you, for your men, like we’re offering here, too…

  • Reply darla kernell July 16, 2014 at 3:11 pm

    Wow…my heart aches for you. Beautifully written.

    • Reply Michele July 17, 2014 at 7:02 pm

      Thank you, darla…

  • Reply barbarapotter July 16, 2014 at 9:52 pm

    Such beautiful words that cut right through my heart.

    • Reply Michele July 17, 2014 at 7:04 pm

      Thank you…mine too. When I edited, I would put my head back and ask the air “is it actually possible that this shit has happened???” Surreal is the word that always comes to mind….

  • Reply minnealaskan July 17, 2014 at 5:41 am

    My heart goes out to you, I too have lost a love, my oldest son… the pain of loss is a huge hurdle, I have yet to make it over. Wishing you happiness.

    • Reply Michele July 17, 2014 at 7:08 pm

      My heart goes back out to you….peace to surround you and yours, me and mine, that is my wish.

  • Reply Erin July 17, 2014 at 9:28 pm

    Michele…thank goodness that writing has become a lifeline for you. I was privileged (an odd word, I know…considering why we were “there”) to read your thoughts in Megan’s first workshop, and am glad you found Jen’s site. I was struck by your reply to Mara. I, too, did so much sleuthing after my father’s suicide. I had to know everything….but of course that’s impossible. In the end, I still don’t know exactly why…and why on my birthday. I used to work in EMS and in the ER of a trauma center. I wondered if that had anything to do with my need to know every detail of the autopsy, the scene report, etc. But I think perhaps it is not as unusual as I first thought (I thought I was a freak for wanting to know everything. For NEEDING to know everything). The pathologist (who, weirdly, is a social acquaintance) told me that it’s not unusual for the families of suicide victims or homicide victims to request a meeting. I hope you do write about your sleuthing. I will read it and know I am not alone.

    • Reply michele July 18, 2014 at 9:34 pm

      Hi Erin…I am so happy to have happened upon Megan, her words, the course, and all of the good people like you that I came to know. That was a hard 30 days of writing, but I would lay my head down at night and feel such a connection to all of you – we were in it together. I have been given such encouragement to write…I think I’m just getting started. Love and peace to you…you are not alone..xoxo

      • Reply mmdevine July 23, 2014 at 1:55 pm

        hi there both of you. Love you.

  • Reply Mare July 18, 2014 at 4:48 pm

    Well written, hard to read thru tear filled eyes. I have always been amazed that you found the strength to go on, to finally open yourself up to fall in love with my brother, only to have him ripped away from you while the world seemed to be revolving for only the two of you. A promising future with him, an almost sister-in-law(me) who will love you forever, how ever long that is, because sometimes, forever is not long enough…hugs

    • Reply michele July 18, 2014 at 9:49 pm

      My dear almost-sis-in-law….it was easy to fall in love with your brother, and I would do it all over again if given the chance. But that’s silly of me to say, because I still love your brother, and I always will, so I’m living the chance that I took… I miss you, I’m sorry for your tears, and big
      hugs back..xoxo

  • Reply Maria Hantsch-Paone July 19, 2014 at 5:13 am

    Michele you know I cry with you. I feel so lucky to have met you! You are a sweet angel. I am so sorry for your pain! I will always remember u in prayer.

    • Reply michele July 19, 2014 at 5:47 pm

      Maria! Please do not cry long…me and the kids are doing well. Writing helps me, thanks for reading, sweet lady 🙂

  • Reply triciatierney July 19, 2014 at 12:43 pm

    Whew, powerful.
    I never saw an actual autopsy report but got confirmation over the phone that cocaine was certainly in his system – the only time I’d ever, after 10 years together – at least 5 of that suspecting, known for sure. Although a noose is what ended it leaving my young daughter and I, it was addiction that killed him.
    For you to have found love again and lost him so soon — shit. I’m sorry. So many stories – and yes, the telling is so important. Thank you for yours.

    • Reply michele July 19, 2014 at 5:56 pm

      I remember reading about someone’s multiple losses, just before John’s death (my second love). I practically dropped the paper down as though it was on fire… I thought if I touched it too long, the same thing would happen to me. A crazy thought, but then it did happen to me. No one knows what they can endure, until they have to…telling stories is proof, I agree. Peace to you and your daughter…you sound strong.

  • Reply Marianne August 28, 2014 at 5:10 am

    We lost our youngest daughter this spring to a strange combination of cascading events in her little body that started with her inability to get over several colds and ended with the blood surrounding her brain completely clotting. We watched her slowly slip further away as her brain swelled and stopped working. There was no need for an autopsy, but my husband and I couldn’t handle the thought of some unknown person cutting our 10 month old baby up. We got all the paperwork to take her home and bury her in a small family cemetery, without embalming, just as she was. For some reason, that felt right. It might be different and strange from the normal way now, but I just wanted her intact and uncut when we laid her to rest.

    • Reply Michele August 28, 2014 at 8:58 pm

      I am so, so sorry for the loss of your baby girl.

      Death in and of itself is so different and strange…I know it is a part of being given life, and the polar opposite of that would be living for forever…another daunting thought. I wonder if we would get bored, or complacent, or something non-descript like that if life never ended as we know it. Loving makes dying so complicated and down right hurtful, but we can’t live without love. Wouldn’t want to.

      I am happy that your baby is whole for you, and I hope the hurt in your heart becomes less sharp, and more kind to you..

  • Reply Angela August 28, 2014 at 9:19 am

    an almost lover of mine recently committed suicide. we were 2 months into seeing each other, and the day i didn’t return his text, he left a note by his bed and left this world. thank you for this. sending you strength and love.

  • Reply Michele August 28, 2014 at 9:13 pm

    Strength and love being sent back to you, Angela. Such a hard thing, being left behind when someone leaves this world on purpose. 2 years out from my husband’s death, I’ve come to believe that even 1000 notes would never help me to understand…

    Peace for you…

  • Reply Annie August 30, 2014 at 5:50 am

    Michele, this was beautifully written and took me into your country of loss. What grace and love you convey here.

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