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A time to die

I will call the stranger who dialed 911 “Joe.”

Joe relayed the facts of the situation to the dispatcher: There was a dead man on the other side of a decorative open-blocked cinder wall. He was lying on the ground, hidden from view on the other side by tall, thick bushes. He was found by a boy and his mom.


I stood next to Joe and listened to his side of the conversation. I couldn’t help but think it was all a crazy mistake.

The man my son discovered a few minutes earlier was just sleeping, right? How deeply wrong to mistake a sleeping man for a dead man. I actually worried how he’d feel when he woke up to hear some lady thought he was dead. While Joe answered the dispatcher’s questions, I walked back to the bench where I sat when I first saw the dead man. I approached him, concentrating on his face. There was no mistake, no flinch, no flare, no life.

Joe snapped his phone shut and put it in his pocket. The police and paramedics were on their way. The dispatcher said for us to move away from the body just in case. We left the walled garden courtyard to wait for the authorities to arrive. Loud sirens meant they were already near. A firetruck pulled up first, then an ambulance, then the police. Joe and I hailed them. I led them to the body.

A paramedic confirmed he was dead. The men began to talk logistics. Yellow tape appeared out of nowhere, wound around trees and bushes with Joe and I still inside. An officer flipped a small notebook open and began to write down the pertinent information. A paramedic said he confirmed the death at 14:14. Joe excused himself. His bike was still inside the building and he was wanted to get it. The policeman said okay.

I gave a statement. My son found the body first, then told me. I thought maybe the man was sleeping, but then I realized he wasn’t sleeping. My husband quickly took our kids outside, away, and I stayed behind to look for help. Joe saw us. He knew something bad happened because of our faces. He asked to help, and he did.

The police officer told me the man was most likely homeless. I nodded. I knew it. But I couldn’t help wonder if he thought that would lessen the impact or the degree of what happened. Like it was finding a dead bird or animal—sad, but natural and not unexpected. I don’t think the police officer was cold or uncaring. I just think as a police officer in Boulder, he’s probably seen a lot of similar scenes in the course of his career.

After giving my information, I walked away. Joe came out of the building pushing his bike and we said goodbye. I looked for Lee and our kids. I saw them across the lawn. Some of them were running around, chasing each other. My older kids stood. They saw me coming. It was all bewildering.

We went home.


We walked in our front door. My son headed toward his bedroom and I caught him. I turned him around. He was crying and he declared the man’s face was like a screensaver in his head. I threw my arms around him and said I knew exactly what he meant because I saw him too.

All the way home, we had chattered like maniacs about everything we were seeing out the van windows and things we needed to do. It was to cover up what was going on. We had no idea who saw what and what they realized or didn’t realize. We hadn’t had time to talk to each of our kids, alone, to determine what they knew. That would come later.


Now what?

That’s what I kept thinking.

I decided I wanted to see Winnie the Pooh, immediately. It would be perfect because my son had been wanting to see it for weeks. When it first arrived in theaters, he watched the trailer over and over, declaring Pooh to be one of his all-time favorites, begging to go. Lee agreed it was a good idea. My son and I put on our shoes and left. We drove to the theater and talked about how it was going to be very important that we not bottle up bad feelings. He could talk to anyone he trusted. He said he would.

Winnie the Pooh made us laugh out loud. It gave us precious, necessary distance for a little over an hour. During the movie, my cell phone buzzed in my bag. I didn’t answer. It turned out to be a detective with the police department. After the movie, I called the detective. We were still in the parking lot. He asked about us. Were we okay? He had already contacted Victim’s Advocacy on our behalf, saying they’d be calling to chat with us as well. They could even come to our home as soon as we wanted. They’d help us in any way they could. I thanked him.

A few minutes later, a woman from the advocacy office called and asked if we had any questions or things we wanted to talk about. I told her how our son was doing and how the other kids were doing. She gave me several ways to contact her office in the future.

And then an investigator from the coroner’s office called a few hours later, wondering if we had any questions for him. I missed the call. I didn’t realize I had a message until I woke in the middle of the night and looked at my phone. I listened right there in bed, exhausted, still bewildered, and praying away the screensaver.

I could think of one question:

What is the man’s name?


It was a lonely way to die: Wedged between shrubs and bricks, alone under a dark blue sleeping bag. I realized he thought he was simply going to sleep because his wire-framed glasses were neatly folded and resting inside a hollow cinder brick, waiting for him to wear the next morning. It was his little nightstand.

And then our family, all 10 of us, visited the little courtyard garden last Saturday afternoon after picnicking on salami, cheese, and crackers. We found him.

He is someone’s son. He was once a baby, a boy, a teen. My heart goes out to that child and that man whose life ended there and once-upon-a-then. It’s too late to change what happened, but it’s never too late to tell someone’s story and perhaps through that effect change. As long as we have poverty, abuse, addiction, mental illness, apathy, isolation, and rejection, we will have the homeless.

Death is not the greatest loss in life. The greatest loss is what dies inside us while we live. ~Norman Cousins

Some estimate 80% of homeless people struggle with mental health and addiction. Chances are excellent everyone reading this knows and loves people who share those same battles. As a Christian, I am commanded to actively care for “the least of these” which means those who cannot help themselves. Too often, I leave that for others. I tell myself I haven’t been called to that ministry.

Then those ‘sheep’ are going to say, ‘Master, what are you talking about? When did we ever see you hungry and feed you, thirsty and give you a drink? And when did we ever see you sick or in prison and come to you?’ Then the King will say, ‘I’m telling the solemn truth: Whenever you did one of these things to someone overlooked or ignored, that was me—you did it to me.’ Matthew 25: 37-40 The Message

If this wasn’t a bullhorn in my face, I don’t know what it was. People are free to reject the food, the drink, the companionship, the medicine. But I am not free to not offer.

As soon as I know who he was, I will write his name here. My heart goes out to everyone who knew him and loved him and misses him.

Edited to add: The coroner’s office called. His name was Jeffrey.

37 comments to A time to die

  • You are right. We live in our comfortable worlds, looking past other people, thinking someone else will reach out to them.

    Keeping your guys in my prayers. It won’t be something you’ll forget. But I hope you find peace. 🙂

  • First Gretchen I am so sorry this happened. I’m sorry for the images and having to recover from this incident. One thing that truly resonates with me is that Boulder has a very active and present homeless population. Boulder doesn’t hide their homelessness well. I wrote a post in July about buying food for a homeless pregnant woman we would see spare changing at a red light near our house (you should read it). I haven’t seen her lately and it worries me, but i’m hoping she’s in a safe place and had her baby.

    There’s something so innately sad about this entire group of people that have fallen on hard times or are trying to escape something that has happened in their lives, but they are caught in the public fray. I never want to look away and 1,000 times over I simply wish I carried a boat load of sandwiches in my bag.

  • Wow, what a powerful experience. Bad, yes, but in the end a lesson, definitely. No idea how my kids would deal with this, they have a huge aversion to even the word death. You’re amazing and wonderful for dealing with it and getting the lesson. HUGE HUGE hugs!

  • What a beautiful capture of a horrifying event. Your words sing to me a song that reminds me to have compassion, watch out for others, be sensitive to the feelings of others, remember that everyone is bearing a cross of some kind, cherish all that I have. Thank you for sharing your experience, and yourself. Prayers for you, your son, your family, and this man who was lucky to have you escort him beyond.

  • Marie

    I am glad there are resources out there for you and your children should you need them. What a sobering experience for all of you. I’m sorry that he was alone when he died, but glad that someone who cared found him.

  • I’m so sorry that this has happened to you and your boy. I can’t even imagine what you are all going through. He’s lucky that he has parents that will help him through it.

    I hope this man can rest in peace and that they figure out who he was.

  • I can’t even imagine how scary it was and still is. I’m so sorry for him, you, your son . . . just so tragic.

    I’m also quite careful when I have my kids with me since I know so many homeless individuals are mentally ill and unmedicated. Most of the time they are safe but not always which worries me. I’m happy to give food and juice boxes but I’ve had homeless person jump into my car before –when we lived in Berkeley. Okay, it was a VW van but still. It frightened me forever.

    I wish I could give you a hug. Thanks for sharing this experience — very powerful and sad.


  • What a changing experience. The other day as we watched a homeless man pass by carrying all his possessions on his back a friend commented that her child had seen the man earlier and simply thought he was camping. We talked about the homeless population in our town and I was struck by the nonchalance of of words. How easily “we” separated ourselves from “them.”

  • Jo

    Gretchen, how lucky we *all* are that you were the ones who found this man. I know it feels like something that you wish anyone else should have seen – but your caring, your empathy and your very real compassion is probably more than the man has been afforded for a long time. At his passing, it is these things that resonate. So while I hope you and your family are able to come to terms with it all quickly, for your own wellbeing, I can’t help but believe the Lord had a purpose in having you find this man – from your actions upon the discovery right through to the conversations you have had, and will have with your family – and ultimately with the sharing of the story with us all. Thank you, and a great big hug for you all.

  • Beautifully written, Gretchen. Please do keep us updated on what you find out (if anything). It brings my heart to think of even the possibility he wouldn’t be identified. Everyone needs someone to love, even in death.

  • What a difficult and shocking situation, and “difficult and shocking” doesn’t even come close to the describing the gravity of the situation. In time, the images of that day will fade and distort, but they will linger. It’s sounding like you’re doing all you can do for you and your son and all involved.

    Many don’t know this, but for years, I was the coordinator in charge of a Homeless Outreach Project in a relatively large city in the Midwest. I’ve seen the issues of homelessness from a side that few rarely do. Not being able to truly help us nearly broke me. (I say “us” instead of “them” for a reason.) The despair and hopelessness I felt pales in comparison to the person who truly doesn’t know how she is going to feed her children in a couple hours or where they’ll be sleeping that night. The addictions, the abuse, the cycle of blame, the inability to keep it from happening…It was too much for me to bear, so I actually got out of the field. 🙁

    Good luck dealing with this Gretchen. My heart goes out to you and all those involved.

  • Wow, Gretchen. I read this with tears. And yes, it is so sad that this man died the way he did. The blessing (in disguise) is that you and your son found him. If he had been found by the police officers who are used to this kind of thing, no one would be thinking of him still. I hope that you and your son are doing better and find peace in your heart and mind. He did die a peaceful death and his death has prompted you to take action and see a need for help. It wasn’t in vain and it wasn’t unnoticed.

    Thank you so much for sharing this story, it is a wonderful reminder for all of us.

    Best to you both!

    PS I am a Project Manager with Metro Volunteers, and although there are other groups, I love working with them! They have great opps that kids can join in too.

  • So sad and shocking. I’m sorry your son had to grow up so fast that day. But I have to believe God can use this for good. Like you said, a bullhorn, who knows what impact this could have, but it can be for good. That is what I will pray.

    Hugs Gretchen!

  • Oh Gretchen, I am truly sorry you all had to go through this. Your post captures every emotion quite well, and I know you and your husband are great parents and your family will be stronger and closer because of this but what a horrible thing for your son to see. It’s hard enough being a kid… as to the homeless man, and many more like him who go unnoticed, unfed, and sometimes unfound, it truly makes me sad.

    We as a society are outraged by so many nonsensical things and yet this is pervasive problem in our own backyard and I wish I could do more. Again, I just do not understand the outrage people in our state pour out over but homelessness and hunger are real issues and it does not appear to cause the same outrage as perhaps other issues. My heart and prayers go out to you all to get through this and be stronger as a result of this horrific experience. Thank you for sharing your story with us.

  • Jenni

    Oh Gretchen. Just….oh.

  • Gretchen,
    This is one of the most powerful stories I’ve read in a long while. And I read a lot. This man, while meeting an untimely and likely too early death, not full of dignity – found dignity in having your son and you find him. To tell his story. To give him a final, peaceful, resting story. To allow his family a chance to bid him a proper farewell. This is a story that needs to be shared and I think anyone who reads it will be compelled to share it. Again, giving him and the homeless population some much needed dignity and understanding. I hope you will share this in church. What a lesson to pass forth. I can’t imagine anyone hearing you read your words written here not being moved to do something, anything. A most powerful ‘pay it forward’ moment. And honor to this yet unnamed man. You found him for a reason. I hope knowing that will allow you to shake the stirring screensaver from your minds, making way for a more peaceful image.

    And I’m happy to call you a friend. One with much grace and compassion. It’s obvious you’ve passed those traits along to your children.

  • Shayne

    Wow, Gretchen. I am sorry that you and your son have had to go through this, but I echo the comments of others saying that it is a blessing to this man that you were the ones who found him. As someone whose husband works in law enforcement, I am familiar with the services that Victim’s Advocacy provides. I encourage you to take advantage of that to the extent that you need to. In my experience, those folks are wonderful, caring people who truly want to help.

    Praying for peace for you and your family and for the family of the man you found.

  • Oh how terribly sad and distressing for you and your family. That poor man, that’s not how life is supposed to be. You are so wise in how you write, thank you. My mother when she was a little girl discovered a man who had attempted suicide, he used a method that is usually very successful but he was still alive. She still remembers the experience. I hope your son stops seeing the screensaver so vividly soon.

  • My heart and prayers go out to you and your family, the man and those who knew him.

  • WoW! So powerful! My husband is a firefighter and runs on these calls all the time, so it’s not unheard of for me to hear stories about it. I have become numb to it in a sense and don’t really put together the fact that these are people with names, someone’s son…But what I need to remember most importantly is that he is someone’s son – God’s. Next time I hear a story like this from my husband I will take it less lightly and remember your story.

    I hope your family is healing from this. It sounds as though this gave you a huge revelation. Praise God for that!

  • I have no words, but tears. Tears tonight for you. For your family. For Jeffrey.

  • Oh Gretchen what a beautifully written story. I agree with everyone here that you were destined to find him. You all gave him the respect & honor that his last moments on earth lacked. What a hard life lesson for all of your kids, especially Joe. A hard life lesson that will give him compassion and empathy many lack. Hugs to all of you as you work to heal from this event. This post gives us all motivation not to look the other way and always respect and help everyone who passes thru our lives.

  • Thank you for his name, for honoring him here.

    “the man’s face was like a screensaver in his head.” This line stayed with me all day, from when I first read your post this morning, before heading to a funeral.

    Peace to you and your family, Jeffrey’s and his.

  • I’m sure Jeffrey would thank you if he could, for honoring him in this way. I wish there were a way to erase the image from your minds, especially for your son. Much too much for anyone to see. I hope the Victim’s Advocacy counselors can at least help soften the image for you both.

  • Amy

    Thank you for sharing this beautiful story. Although my head is pounding from crying, I loved it because it touches so close to home and I felt such a connection. I dated a man for five years that made the choice to live on the streets. He was a brilliant, kind, funny, handsome boy who came from Newport Beach, California. So, needless to say, he came from a very affluent family. I loved him deeply and was sure he would be the man I would marry. Slowly his mind went somewhere else and he began drinking. I knew I had to let him go. To this day, I will never love another person as much as I loved him. It was heartbreaking to see him sleeping in the park or downtown asking for money. He approached me once as I walked out of the Rockslide with friends. He didn’t even know who I was or that we talked about what we would someday name our kids. When he was aware…sane…I asked him if he wanted a warm shower and a place to sleep for the night. He always declined. The homeless are often viewed as being lazy…a burden. I know firsthand that my homeless man was a decent human being. He just decided he couldn’t handle a mortgage, kids, a car…or a roof over his head. When I would see him here and there and offer help, he always told me that he had never been happier. He told me that when he went to bed at night under the stars he was free from all the pain. I didn’t know this pain because I thought we were perfect…he was perfect. He told me that he had made some great friends and that he would be ok. So…I guess I wanted to write this to tell you that I applaud your story. It should be shared with the world. As you stated, Jeffrey was a person. Jeffrey was a son, a friend….or maybe even the love of someone’s life. And, I know first-hand that it is possible that Jeffrey went to bed that night looking up at the stars and feeling that he was home…free! Jeffrey may have gone to bed happier than any of us that night! Again…thanks for sharing. You are a remarkable writer and Jeffrey’s story couldn’t have been told any better!!

  • I am so sorry. What a wild day in your life. I hope you all feel peace. And yes, a good lesson here.


  • PS I am so happy he gets this tribute, by you of all people. So wonderful, despite the circumstance.


  • I read this yesterday. I don’t really know what to say. So I just wanted to tell you I read it and I have been thinking about it.

  • Amy

    Gretchen, Thank you for deciding to share this story. I cannot imagine how difficult this whole experience has been for you, your son and the entire family. I will be praying for you all, especially your sweet boy.

    I firmly believe that there is a reason that you were the ones to find Jeffrey. The way that you have honored this man with your thoughtful and compassionate words… it’s brought tears to my eyes. What a moving reminder that we need to be about the business of caring for those who are less fortunate. Thank you.

  • This is awful, I can’t believe I am reading this so many days later, and I wanted to say I was sorry… for all the anguish this must be for you and your kiddo’s and innocence lost. Yay for Winnie the Pooh giving you the chance to catch your breathe. You are on my heart in a week when you are getting back to school I think the fun may have been taken out of your sails, but you are so gracious and loving and generous of heart… I am sure Jeffrey would be grateful for your tribute and your memory of him.

  • It was an absurdly slow day at work and I had a book in my purse. I read “Heaven is for Real”… amazing story to read a day or two after your story… read it. It will make you and your kids feel a lot better… love to you all… my dear bloggy friend.

  • I am so sorry you all had to go through this. You know, I regularly have to deal with people who are dead and dying. But even with all my experience, every time I walk into the room of a patient who has died, and I lay my stethoscope on their chest, and look at their empty face, I am sad. I have not gotten used to that stillness and quietness of the body in the room.

    I am glad you all had so much help. I will definitely say a prayer for Jeffrey’s family.

    Thanks also for the reminder about the realities of homelessness.

  • I’m sorry it was you but I am glad it was you. Thank you for telling us this story. Thank you for caring.

  • Thank you for sharing this story. We are praying for your family as you work through what happened. Thank you for giving Jeffrey a face, sharing the verses to encouraging us all to look outside our own world, and help others. It’s heartbreaking how many people are hurting and alone, and no one seems to care. praying

  • That is sad. And crazy. I’m sorry that your son had to be the first that found him. I used to live in lower downtown Denver and wondered when my time would come… the time I saw a dead bum. I’m glad that people have contacted your family to talk, you guys need to talk it out.

  • Cathy

    Gretchen, This blog is beautifully written and thank you for sharing your emotional story with me and so many others. And thank you especially for being moved to action, the homeless we helped today are more grateful then words can express. I truly believe this side of heaven we will never know how far out our light and good deeds shine, but yours with echo into eternity for sure. THANK YOU!!!!

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