Cleaning up after suicide

Thursday, September 30, 2004

Suicide is a painful event for the surviving family members and friends of the victim.

It can also be messy.

It used to be that families of a suicide victim -- or someone whose natural death was undiscovered for some time, or the victim of a fatal accident or violent crime -- were left with not only the pain of their loss but the burden of cleaning up the mess. With increased attention being paid to biohazard cleanup and waste disposal, professionals are increasingly available to do what families or friends once had to do.

On the one hand, biohazard cleanup is a necessary service; on the other hand, at least for three Cape Girardeau residents who do it for a living, it's also a way of showing compassion for the grieving survivors, even though they may at first be strangers.

"It's strange," said Becky Bomar, one of three biohazard recovery specialists employed by Monroe Entercleanof Cape Girardeau. "When you go in you don't know these people, but by the time you walk out you feel like you knew them."

Bomar works with her husband, Rick, and co-worker Mary Stucker.

It takes a special kind of person to perform something so intimate as cleaning up after a violent death. The biohazard recovery specialists usually work in the presence of some of the surviving family members. Often while they work, they listen while the family talks about their lost loved one.

"You have to have a certain level of compassion to be able to do this," Becky Bomar said. "You have to be prepared to find out more information than you wanted to know."

Stucker added: "You have to be able to put yourself in the family's situation and treat people like you would want to be treated. It's part of the grieving process. It's what we are there for."

Their thoroughness in cleaning extends beyond mopping up physical remains.

"We come across pictures, their favorite books by the bedside, their movie collection, all their personal effects," Becky Bomar said. "We can tell what they did last. We find receipts from Wal-Mart, we know what they bought."

Often they have to anticipate what family members may decide they want to keep from the victim's belongings. Often they're told to discard something, and before a job is finished, a survivor changes his mind.

Becky Bomar recalled taking a handmade quilt out of one home and personally washing it so the survivors wouldn't have to live with the memory of how the quilt was stained.

"I was able to salvage an old family heirloom quilt," she said.

Cleaning for a friend

Stucker said her first experience with cleaning up after a suicide was about five years ago when one of her best friends committed suicide. It was something Stucker felt she had to do to ease her own feeling of helplessness.

"I felt it would be my contribution to help the family recover from the tragedy," she said.

Stucker and the Bomars attended training classes together about a year and a half ago and became certified in biohazard cleanup for Monroe Enterclean, which also offers residential and commercial cleaning services.

Most of the cleanups they're called to do are the result of a violent suicide.

The average suicide victim, Rick Bomar said, is a white man between 55 and 65 years old, someone who may no longer feel needed or productive. The method of death is usually a gun to the head. The most common time to choose death is in the spring, around tax time, although he said there's no known connection between death and taxes in this instance.

Most of their referrals come from the coroner or funeral directors, who take the burden of arranging the cleanup off the family and can be direct with the cleanup specialists about what to expect when they get there. It's difficult for the cleaners to ask a family member what to expect when they arrive at the scene; it's less emotional if the coroner or the police can provide details. Homeowners insurance pays the costs in the majority of the cases.

Thorough job

The cleanup specialists have to be very thorough. If they're cleaning up after a suicide involving a gun, they will clean the floors thoroughly, pulling up carpets or rugs, often cleaning into the sub-floor. Blood not only seeps into the flooring, Becky Bomar said, but it also spreads as it soaks in. They also clean electrical sockets, ceiling fans, furniture, books, CDs and anything nearby that might have been hit by spattering blood or tissue. Cleanup often involves more than one room.

The specialists wear biohazard suits and latex gloves when they're working. The masks they wear have enzymes in them to block the smell. They use special solvents to cleanse a home of the remnants of tragedy. They also have been trained in the correct way to dispose of the material they clean up.

Cape Girardeau County Coroner Mike Hurst said that Monroe Enterclean operates under the same requirements as hospitals and funeral homes for disposing of biological waste. Companies that provide homeowners insurance monitor cleanup procedures in such situations, he said. A family who does its own cleanup would not be fined, he said, unless it was a major incident requiring a large amount of biological waste disposal. The disposal, he said, is the major item.

"They want to be sure no one is just sticking the waste into the garbage and sending it out to the dump," Hurst said.

A potential health hazard could occur if blood-borne pathogens were among some trash that an animal got into and had spread around an area exposing neighbors to disease.

The camaraderie developed among the three employees helps get them through tough assignments. They support each other when the job gets to be too much to handle and have found ways of decompressing to relieve stress. They know they need each other, and none of them ever works a job alone.

"We know what to say to get the other person back up," Becky Bomar said.

It's easy to wonder what makes them do it.

Stucker said that "the hugs and handshakes and letters of appreciation" make it worthwhile.

"You have to think if you are having that much trouble doing it, imagine what the family members feel like having to do it knowing it was their loved one," Bomar said. "You have to get through it."

lredeffer@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 160

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