The woman was wrapping birthday presents for her daughters when I told her that her husband had been killed.
It was a Friday night and I was watching Friday Night Football. My phone rang just before half-time. It was my boss, the Commanding Officer of my Regiment.
What was I doing? He asks
“Just watching the footy Sir”
Had I been drinking?
“I’ve had a couple Sir”
Could I still drive?
I glanced down at the half empty bottle in my hand. Pause… “Yes, Sir”
“I need you to report to headquarters. There’s been a soldier killed in Afghanistan. We need you to do the Notification.”
My stomach fell.
A notification is a military term. It means to knock on someone’s Door and tell them that their loved one has been killed. All military officers of a certain rank are given training in how to do this. Fortunately, it’s a relatively rare event in the modern military. Unfortunately for me, it wasn’t rare enough.
“I can be there in forty-five minutes Sir.” Trying to sound matter of fact. Taking it in my stride. I hang up the phone and pause to think.
The first thing I need is a uniform. Contrary to Hollywood stereotypes, a perfectly starched dress uniform rarely hangs in the wardrobe of your average soldier. I manage to find something I had worn to an event some months prior. Half worn. Crumpled. The best I can do. My wife sets to ironing while I jump in the shower.
I drive to Brigade Headquarters. A place usually best avoided. Brightly lit yet shrouded in shadows this late on a Friday night. The carpark is deserted. I slide into a visitor’s space, slide out of my car. Walk inside and up the stairs.
Waiting for me was the Brigade Duty Officer and a military chaplain, known in the service as a Padre. They hand me a snapshot of the soldier.
Early thirties. Separated. Two daughters. Killed by an Improvised Explosive Device. Another soldier has been killed in the same incident.
I later learn that he had been doing push ups when he died. His patrol had taken a position atop a hill, in support of another unit operating below. The hilltop had been searched. Given the all clear. A security perimeter was established and those soldiers not on security piquet had relaxed. Played cards and made coffee. Done push ups. Until……
None of this I know now.
I am to notify his ex-wife that he has been killed. The ex-wife part throws me a little. How would she react?
“She might be pleased to see me,” I joke. Trying to find humour to lighten the mood.
No one laughs.
From there to the House. We stop short. Waiting around the corner until all is in place. The notification of the death of a soldier is a highly choreographed event. Both parents and partners of the deceased are notified simultaneously. As two soldiers had been killed this meant four notification teams were being positioned on street corners across the country, ready to swoop in on unsuspecting families once given the word.
We sit in the dark, the Padre and I. Getting to know each other. Making small talk. Talking about what was to come while simultaneously trying to not think about it. I mentally rehearsed my lines.
I knock. She opens the door. I deliver the news.
The training is quite specific. The word that you must use is “Killed.” Any other words leave room for misinterpretation. False hope. Such is the trauma of receiving such news, the human brain will try to reinterpret the words and deny the truth of the brutality that has just been delivered. You must use the word “killed.”
The soldier has been killed.
The phone rings. Word is given that everything is ready, and we are told to go. The Padre starts the car and pulls around the corner, stopping in front of a house that is not more than fifty metres from where we had sat. Neither of us is talking now. He looks at me. I nod. The time has come.
I take a moment to gather myself as I stand in the street. Straighten my uniform. Take a few deep breaths. A final mental rehearsal of what I am about to do.
I glance at house. Two storeys. Nondescript. Lights are visible on the second floor. The ground floor is completely darkened, except for the porch light which has been left on, as if in expectation of a visitor.
Perhaps they have ordered pizza, I think.
It is time.
We walk up the driveway towards the front door. The steel caps on the heels of my boots, designed to ring loudly with each boot strike on a military parade ground, echo jarringly in the quiet of this sleepy suburban street. We reach the door and pause again to gather ourselves, before I reach forward and knock firmly.
Footsteps can be heard on the stairwell inside. Some shuffling. My heart beat quickens as the door begins to open. The words are poised, coiled on the tip of my tongue. I prepare to begin my speech. Except…
A man’s head appears in the door way. Initially there is a look of mild annoyance on his face. This rapidly changes to confusion as he takes in what confronts him. Two men in full military regalia. Starched shirts, polished leather and brass. Within an instant confusion turns to comprehension. He knows not why we are here but knows it can’t be good.
Like him, I am momentarily thrown by what confronts me. Then I remember that the soldier and his wife are separated. This is likely the new partner, sent to answer an unexpected knock in the night.
I clear my throat. “Excuse me Sir, may I speak with Mrs Jones” Sounding more confident than I feel. I can sense autopilot beginning to kick in. That strange sensation that occurs when training begins to take over.
The man nods and disappears back inside, closing the door behind him.
We wait again.
Moments later the door opens, and a women’s head appears. She is better prepared than her partner for who is waiting, but it takes a second or two for her own eyes confirm that which she had feared.
I prepare to say the words, but before I can speak she steps out of the door, closing it behind her. She staggers outside, beginning to sob uncontrollably.
“No, No, No,” she wails. Running now, down the driveway. “Tell me he’s not dead”
By this stage she is out on the sidewalk, the street deserted around her.
“I think we should go inside ma’am.”
“Tell me he’s not dead,” she continues to moan. Softly, as if not wanting to disturb the neighbours.
“Ma’am I really think we should go inside to talk.”
I’m not sure how to handle this. It wasn’t covered in the training, but I’m sure that the side of a deserted street is not the place for the conversation we need to have.
The Padre intervenes and takes her by the arm. Steers her towards the house. It’s not the neighbours she’s worried about, but her girls. She’s concerned that her children will see us. We assure her we’ll be discrete.
As she approaches the door she looks at me again. “Please,” little more than a whisper now. “Tell me he’s OK. I can’t tell my daughters they have to grow up without a dad.”
I try to answer but the words catch in my throat. I gesture to the door. She nods. Understanding.
We move inside. The boyfriend holds the door open. There is set of stairs leading up to the second storey and a living area to our front. A corridor leads towards the back of the house. She emphasises again the need to be quiet, indicating her children are upstairs. We move towards the back of the house. Stepping over boxes and other obstacles strewn around the room.
I’m really sorry the house is such a mess. We’re renovating.
I’m struck by the dissonance of her comment. I’ve come as a stranger in the night to tell her that her husband is dead, yet she feels the need to apologise for an unkempt home. We mutter reassurances as we move down the hallway, guided into a room on the right. Its completely empty except for some paint tins and a drop sheet. The woman flicks the light switch, but nothing happens.
“The electricity is disconnected,” the boyfriend chimes in. “It’s the renovations.” He shrugs apologetically.
She nods to me, composing herself. “We can talk here. I’m sorry about the lights”
I gather myself
Ma’am, on behalf of the Chief of the Defence Force I regret to inform you that your ex husband has been killed.”
The words tumble out of my mouth, as if relieved to be spoken after being held inside for so long.
The woman slumps to the floor, her partner catching her and gently lowering her to the ground. There is an awkward pause, before we join her. The only illumination comes through the curtainless window from a streetlight outside.
She shudders and sobs. We sit awkwardly, cross legged on the floor, forming a semi-circle around the grieving widow. We give her a moment to come to terms with the news. She looks up.
“What happened? When did it happen? How did he die?”
“Ma’am all I know is that your husband was killed in Afghanistan earlier today.”
The word rings awkwardly in the small room.
I know significantly more than this. I don’t yet know about the push ups, but I do know that the incident happened many hours before. This is an unusually long period of time to wait for the next of kin to be notified. In the digital age, the race is on from the moment the soldier dies to ensure that the family is notified before they receive the news via Facebook or the media. In this case the delay was due to the soldier’s injuries being so severe that it took an unusually long time to identify his remains. None of this I tell her now.
“Ma’am, I’m sorry. All I know is that your ex husband has died. We’ll know more as soon as details are available.”
She asks a few more questions that I do my best not to answer. At some point the Padre begins to insert himself more into the conversation, answering her questions as best he can.
I say little more for the rest of our time at the house. The Padre is in charge now. For him this is familiar ground. The women’s life is about to become a whirlwind of official engagements. The Prime Minister will want to speak with her tomorrow, as will a long line of other dignitaries: Governors General and State Premiers. All queuing to provide their condolences. There will be memorial ceremonies and, of course, the funeral. The Padre will be by her side to assist her through this time.
But me she will not see again after this night. Hundreds of years of bitter experience has taught the military how best to manage situations such as these. My job is done. The words have been said. I am the carrier of ill tidings. The bearer of bad news. The face that she can blame for a tragedy delivered to her door. I will slink away into the night, to be replaced tomorrow by a small army of men and women who will assist her through the grief of the next few weeks.
We stay for almost four hours as she comes to terms with how her life has changed. Her new partner is the true hero of this story. He gets candles and camp chairs and cups of coffee, all the while keeping the children upstairs entertained and oblivious to what is occurring beneath their feet. Saying little but doing much. She is fortunate to have his support I think.
Eventually the time comes to leave. There are no more words to be said or condolences offered. We pause just outside her front door. The Padre has offered to visit at seven the next morning. To be present when she breaks the news to her daughters. Tells them that their father has been killed.
There will be little sleep in this house tonight.
Once arrangements have been confirmed, the Padre walks down the driveway towards our waiting vehicle. I pause awkwardly, then lean forward and hug her briefly, whispering “I’m sorry.” Not knowing what else to say.
As I turn to leave, she catches me by the arm. I stop and look back. She smiles ruefully and says,
“Mate, you have got to have the worst job in the world!”
I return her smile, and nod. “I know,” I say, before turning and walking away.
The Notification was originally published in The Ascent on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.