Personal Effects: What Recovering the Dead Teaches Me About Caring for the Living

Personal Effects – Robert A. Jensen

Robert A. Jensen is a man you hopefully never have to meet, but if you do, there isn’t another person more suitable for his job. As Chairman of Kenyon International Emergency Services, Jensen has made a career out of responding to some of the worst disasters of the past twenty-five years – the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, 9/11, the Haitian Earthquake of 2010, the fire in Grenfell Tower in 2017, the Thailand tsunami in 2004 and countless other plane crashes and terrorist attacks.

You would think that having to sort through the overwhelming amount of wreckage, personal effects and human remains would be bad enough, Robert is also tasked with meeting the families of those who have lost loved ones. There are others that are either afraid to be the bearer of bad news or will unintentionally mislead people in an effort to either soften the blow or offer up false hope, but Robert finds that being truthful and realistic is really the only course of action one can take. While Robert writes that this part of the job obviously isn’t something he enjoys, he knows that providing these families with as much information as possible will only allow them to begin their journey to processing their new reality.

Not only does Robert reminisce about his experiences in disasters both natural and man-made, he also discusses the advances in science over his career with regards to identifying human remains. He also shines a light on the political difficulties that come with repatriating those we’ve lost following a large-scale disaster. Robert’s work can be time sensitive and having to navigate the bureaucratic waters is frustrating to read about, especially the chapter focusing on Hurricane Katrina, an event that was not only a weather disaster, but also an organizational one.

The world we live in is not always an easy one and Robert has certainly seen the worst it has to offer. It is comforting to know that there is someone out there with empathy in his role. Robert could have easily grown numb or even jaded following disaster after disaster, but he never fails to put himself in the shoes of those who have suffered tremendous loss. PERSONAL EFFECTS is one of the most engaging and hopeful memoirs I have read in quite some time. It proves there are still good people out there in an age where every event is so divisive and politicized that we often forget our own humanity and capacity for good.

Personal Effects is scheduled for release on September 28th, 2021

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