“Someone just died, you know”

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Dr Anne Grinyer

I was a passenger on a train that killed someone. I had previously thought about how traumatic it must be for the train driver who can do nothing to avoid the collision but who must be left with an indelible image of the moment of impact. However, I had not considered the effect it might have on the train’s passengers – being so close to a sudden and shocking death while also being remote from it. In my personal experience of this phenomenon, my train was pulling into a station platform, travelling slowly, I did not feel, hear or see anything that would indicate such a catastrophe had taken place apart from the fact the train stopped before entering the platform fully.

A short time after we came to a halt an announcement that we ‘might have struck a person on the platform’ was made, we were subsequently told that the train had indeed stuck a person who had died as a result. We were then informed that the train had been impounded by the British Transport Police, was under their jurisdiction and that all doors would remain locked until an investigation had taken place. Reactions from other passengers included shock, horror, concerns about how and when destinations would be reached, and comments on the delay being likely to take so long that full refunds of the fares would be paid.

After some time, an announcement was made that we would be well advised to avoid looking out of the train windows as the ‘debris’ was being cleared from the line. There was a hesitation before the use of the word ‘debris’; presumably this was a euphemism intended not to offend or upset further. But for me it conjured an image of a body so badly injured or dismembered that it no longer bore any resemblance to the living person.

Eventually the train pulled onto the platform fully, the doors were unlocked, and passengers given the option of boarding an alternative train or staying on board and awaiting the arrival of a replacement driver. In the end the train was evacuated and did not proceed to its destination; but the alternative service became so crowded with the evacuees we were all instructed to leave the train or it would not depart the station. This of course caused consternation but any attempt to gather information from railway station staff was met with the somewhat curt response of ‘Someone just died you know’. On reflection, the railway staff had probably just witnessed this dreadful death and were experiencing a post traumatic effect, but at the time the sense of powerlessness, uncertainty and even anger among passengers about being stranded, without information, was palpable.

After considerable delay I reached my destination and my weekend away began. However, I continued to be haunted by the suicide – I had not witnessed it yet felt inextricably involved in the loss of life by virtue of having been a passenger in the vehicle that struck the young woman. I know it was a young woman because as soon as I was reconnected with Wi-Fi I felt compelled to look up online the details of the suicide. The ‘suicide’ stopped being anonymous; she had a name, her family circumstances were revealed and there was a photograph of her. She had been standing on the platform apparently waiting for the train, as it approached she handed her bag to an adjacent stranger and stepped off the platform. How traumatic and distressing it must have been for those who witnessed this event I can only imagine.

Perhaps I would have been better not having had access to this readily available information, not being able to put a name and a face to the tragedy – but it was too late and I could not expunge thoughts about her and her suicide from my mind. I tried to talk about it to the people I was staying with who, perhaps understandably, did not want to keep hearing about it and whose response was ‘Just stop thinking about it’; indeed I was unsure exactly why I kept thinking about it – I had seen, heard and felt nothing, I had no status or role in the death and yet it seemed to have a profound impact. Death is something that tends to take place out of sight, and though this was a ‘public’ death, it had taken place out of my sight but in some senses had also been brought very close.

Over the three weeks since this train journey the impact has faded – I suffered no loss in my life nor could I claim any legitimate grief response to the death of a person I had never known. Yet I was affected, it is an event I don’t believe I will forget. Occasionally I may tell it as a story from the many experiences that we store to share in appropriate contexts.  This does not trivialise the event – by turning such experiences into narratives we find a place for them, normalise them and learn to live with the aftermath.

Anne Grinyer

Dr Anne Grinyer is a medical sociologist and Senior Lecturer in Health Research in the Division of Health Research in the Faculty of Health and Medicine at Lancaster University. Her research interests include the psychosocial impact of cancer in teenagers and young adults and palliative and end of life care for children and young people.

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