A season of grief

There is something about the death of a baby that shakes a community to its core. We know that babies are vulnerable and fragile. We handle them with great care. But babies are also a source of promise and joy. We celebrate their birth.

In the midst of the usual busyness of my day Sunday, I received a phone call that the one-year-old son of one of the officers at Western South Dakota Juvenile Services Center had been rushed to the hospital after suffering a cardiac event a home. Both of the parents are trained first responders but the child was in critical condition. Later I was informed that the child was being transported by air ambulance to Sioux Falls where advanced care was available. Only one parent was allowed to travel in the airplane with the infant along with a medical care team. We mustered the support to have the father transported by automobile the 360 miles and activated prayer chains. Then we waited. And while we waited we began to imagine the unimaginable.

We knew that there was a significant chance that brain damage had already occurred. We prayed for a miracle. The miracle came but not in the form we imagined. In his death the little one was able to donate life-saving organs to five individuals whose families were desperately praying for miracles for their loved ones.

The grief for the parents and their families and friends is overwhelming. It just isn’t what we expect to happen with happy and healthy little ones. The loss of a child is the loss of the way we have imagined the future. And for all of us who have young grandchildren our fears for them are increased.

Over the last couple of days I have been witnessing the spread of grief and the response of the community. The Pennington County Sheriff’s Office is a fairly tight community and both parents are employees of the office, working in different areas. As is the practice of the office in such situations, the support arises from the co-workers. A Go Fund Me account was established and donations have begun to flow to help meet the family’s needs. A fund-raising lunch has been planned for Monday with the support of the Chaplains. Condolences from the Sheriff and Command Staff have gone forth.

Being a chaplain is only a very small part of my life. I have a full time job and I volunteer a little bit on the side to serve the men and women of the Sheriff’s Office. It provides a certain kind of balance to my life. As a chaplain, I serve people of all different faiths. Very few belong to the church I serve. Many don’t belong to a church at all. They would express their beliefs in a wide variety of different ways. My job is not to convert them or to bring them to Christianity, but rather to serve them. I do a little counseling, have a few important conversations, serve coffee and refreshments and offer encouragement. I provide a presence in times of crisis and I help them find communities of faith with which to connect. In that context I get a few questions about my faith and what I believe and I try to answer honestly.

Sheriff’s chaplains don’t promote any specific brand of religion. We don’t try to influence what others believe. In the context of that position, however, I am deeply aware of the power of community. I don’t serve as a chaplain to gain extra “points” to earn my way into heaven. I don’t do it because a supernatural voice commanded me to do it. I serve because I believe that community is essential to facing life’s challenges.

The young couple who have just lost their son cannot face the rest of their lives alone. The grief they have been handed is too much to bear by yourself. Without the power of the community they will surely fall into impossible depression and anguish. Despite the hope of new life that is given in their generosity to donate their son’s organs, they have many dark days ahead. As Chaplain, I get to witness the power of community in the form of colleagues who organize support and express shared grief.

In community we don’t have to have all of the answers. We don’t need simple solutions. What we need is the knowledge that we are not in this all alone. In the midst of overwhelming tragedy and grief there are others who know the pain and feel the loss.

As the parents walk their journey of grief there will be plenty of simple and pious platitudes offered. They are likely to hear someone say that God needed another angel. Someone will say that their child was too tender and precious for the evils of this life. Someone will comment that they are young and can have another baby. All of those statements will miss the mark. They will fail to acknowledge the depth of pain and loss they are experiencing. Fortunately they will also experience the embrace of colleagues and friends who can’t find any words to say. They will feel the tears of others mingling with their own. They will see the concern on the faces of ones who love and care for them. They will feel the power of community in the midst of the loss.

More than needing the answers to our questions, we need to know that others share them. We are broken but we don’t need people to come to fix us. We need ones to share our brokenness.

For me the alignment of this tragedy with the season of Lent makes sense. For those of us who are Christian we face the somber reality of the death of Jesus. We share the pain of his loved ones. We are embraced by God who knows the pain of the death of a son. And we are reminded that death is not the end.

Healing will come, but it will come slowly. In the meantime we gather as a community and grieve together.

Copyright (c) 2020 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!