By Patrick Wood
“I spent the best part of 20 years working in a very unusual environment,” John Merrick says.
By most standards, he’s correct.
The location was Glebe in Sydney. The “unusual environment” was the Institute of Forensic Medicine. Or, as we would call it, the morgue.
Mr Merrick’s job was to provide counselling and support for people whose loved ones had died, many of whom would come in to see the body after sudden and tragic accidents.
"I think death has often been really difficult across all societies and all cultures," he told ABC News Breakfast.
"Most Western civilisations don't cope with death terribly well.
"We whisk people away in dark cars, wear dark clothing and such as well, so it becomes a distant relationship in some respects as well."
Mr Merrick has just released a book, True Stories From The Morgue, detailing numerous experiences and he said some stories just ached to be shared, even if they're not always easy to hear.
Like the time he had to explain to a mother whose three children had died what an autopsy was.
And how he was involved in the repatriation of bodies after the 2002 Bali bombings.
Or how he helped people who felt guilt after a loved one's death — particularly if it was from suicide.
"It's extraordinarily confronting for people," he said.
"I've broken the news of death to a number of people over the years as well and you can see them crumble. It's just awful to see.
"They crumble because all the control in their life has been taken away as well so you have to try, in some way, to give some of that degree of control back to them."
'I genuinely wanted to help people'
Despite the sadness that often accompanies the work, Mr Merrick said he found great satisfaction in helping people through incredibly difficult times.
One story particularly resonated with him.
"Christine Simpson was the mother of Ebony Simpson, a little girl who was nine when she was murdered some years ago now," he said.
"I became very close to Christine over the years and the murder was such that I would find it very difficult to understand how a mother would go on and live her life.
"But she's gone on to live her life and love her life fiercely and proudly and she's doing enormous stuff these days helping other people."
Mr Merrick said it was always his aim to give people a small sense of hope, even if they didn't believe him at the time.
"At their most bereft I would say, 'At some stage, in years to come I would like to think you will be happier and you will learn to laugh again, you will learn to love again, you will learn to live your life again'," he said.
"I genuinely — and maybe old-fashionedly — really liked working and helping people."
Mr Merrick has since left the morgue but is still working as a counsellor, and he hoped that his stories would resonate with people.
"I had to get them out and I had to give credit and due dignity to those left behind as well, which is really important for me," he said.
This post originally appeared on ABC News.
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