The Chaplain
Angry People

Sometimes the crisis response Chaplain sits quietly with somber people saddened by a loss of a loved to death, or the loss of a home to fire.  Other times the Chaplain becomes the target of anger - another of the most common emotions of traumatic grief.

A Target on My Back

The Chaplain was called to respond to a breathing stoppage along with Fire/EMS and Law Enforcement. A 66 year-old male was unresponsive and not breathing. A family member was starting CPR. When Paramedics arrived on scene they could tell that the male had been dead for several hours. They connected a heart monitor and confirmed that he was dead. The Chaplain arrived just as Paramedics were getting ready to leave the scene. They gave the Chaplain a description of what had happened and packed their equipment back on the ambulance, clearing the scene. It appeared that a few other family members were arriving and entering the home as well.

As the Chaplain approached the house, a police officer approached from his post at the front door, greeting the chaplain and saying. "really glad to see you here - seems like the family is not getting along very well". The sound of raised voices was carrying from inside the house. The Chaplain made sure the officer was not leaving - the officer assuring the Chaplain that he would be staying close - and entered the house.

The scene that unfolded as the Chaplain made his way into the home was not what most people would expect, but not unheard of in his experience. The dead man was lying in the middle of the living room where Paramedics had moved him to perform CPR and was covered with a white sheet. This is normal - when they pronounce someone dead in a home it technically becomes a crime scene (or unattended death) and no one is to move the body until police investigate and the coroner arrives. In this case the man had a long medical history which would most likely explain his death, but each death scene is handled the same way to keep from missing anything.

Five family members, children of the man and their spouses, were standing or seated around the living room speaking angrily at each other, making accusations, and... beginning to fight over the dead man's belongings. They did not seem to really notice the entrance of the Chaplain, or at least it did not derail their elevated conversation. So, the Chaplain quietly walked into the middle of the room and sat on a coffee table next to the dead man, surrounded by the angry mob. It did not take long for the conversation to begin to fade as individuals began staring at the man sitting on the table in the middle of them. When all finally ceased their heated talk, one of the family asked "who are you?", to which the Chaplain softly replied, "Hi folks, my name is Bill and I am a chaplain with the fire department. I just came by to check on you. I am so sorry for the loss of your father."  

For a moment everything calmed down just a notch or two. One daughter-in-law flatly said, "Oh". Then the argument restarted right where they had left off and began to gain momentum, the topic now being what would happen with the house and contents - no one asking what would happen with the body lying in the middle of the room between them.

Taking a chance, the Chaplain raised his voice just enough to heard over the cross-talk and said, "has anyone explained what happens next?". This is usually a pretty safe question because either no one has explained to them, or even if someone has, the trauma and grief have prevented them from remembering. One of the sons retorted bitterly, "well evidently you are all going to be here and we can't do anything about it". Hmm, time for the Chaplain to take another chance. He stated, "Yeah, that is unfortunate isn't it? It would be so much better to be able to just handle everything as a family. But, we go about these death investigations the same way each and every time, just to be sure we have not missed anything. It sounds like your dad had some pretty serious medical problems?" If the Chaplain could get them to focus on himself, even if it was with their anger, at least they might turn away from attacking each other. It worked. Two or three of the family started lashing out (though not as intensely) at the Chaplain. This may seem like a pretty strange ministry approach. What was the Chaplain hoping to accomplish? Well, ideally the Chaplain is there to minister to the needs of the family and help support them through a traumatic loss. This time the most evident grief response was anger, not an uncommon response.  It is less common to have everyone in the room reacting with anger, but here the Chaplain had no idea what family patterns preexisted before the death or what may have been broken in this family system before the current crisis. Broken family systems and relationships do not get repaired during crisis. We can only work with what is in front of us. 

In this case another ministry opportunity was presenting itself. There were now three police officers trying to complete a death investigation. If the Chaplain could soak up some of the anger present, then the officers could complete their task without having to be the direct target. If the Chaplain could keep in mind that the anger being expressed was not about him, he could possibly serve the officers and perhaps eventually the family. 

As he explained what would happen next; the investigation, the coroner, the funeral home, the Chaplain reached down and gently uncovered the dead mans face. "I did not know your dad. Could you tell me something about him? What was he like? What did he like to do"? There was a few moments, seemingly a very long time, when no one spoke. The a daughter-in-law said, "he liked to go to the casino". "Really? Was he good at it?" the Chaplain asked. A son grunted and said, "he usually broke even, but that was about it". "Well, probably better than most people, free entertainment", the Chaplain replied. Another son added, "it just seemed a waste to me, I mean he was an engineer in his career." From there the conversation turned to the dead man, his life, his wife who had died years ago. Suddenly a daughter-in-law asked, "should we have a prayer or something before they take him away?" We did.

This call did not end up with the family all hugging and supporting one another. Anger and hostility still were simmering just under the surface. The Chaplain did get them to agree that the decisions about disposition of belongings could happen later and they did get a bit more civil, but no miraculous turn-arounds. Sometimes we can only work with what we have, do what we can do, and pray that the love of God for all people, just we are, is shared through our actions.