The Bitter and the Sweet

Being the hands and feet of Jesus during some of life’s hardest moments

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The Bitter and the Sweet

Alex Pickens | Nov 2, 2018, 20:01 PM

Being the hands and feet of Jesus during some of life’s hardest moments

Entering a police cruiser is bittersweet. There are good reasons and bad. My first entry in a cruiser was bittersweet.

I climbed into a cruiser to conquer bitter childhood fears. A new police car is sweet — just short of a spaceship. With the Lord's help, I dropped the bitterness. Years after my first ride-along, I began serving as a police chaplain.

A chaplain is a cleric, or a lay representative of a religious tradition, attached to a secular institution. My life's mission is to use the Gospel to serve human populations at the intersection of faith and public health by evangelizing, discipling and mobilizing first responders. Being a chaplain is bittersweet.

Riding in a spaceship with superheroes is sweet. Getting out of the car to deliver bad news is bitter. My first death notification was bittersweet.

A death notification requires one spokesperson to clearly and directly inform family members of death. I was riding with Joe* when the call came. Grandpa had been found dead on the bathroom floor. Everyone had gathered at the house, but they were afraid to call Grandma while she was driving. News of his death could cause an accident.

Grandma Ruth* was scheduled to arrive an hour after we did. Joe knew he had to secure the body and establish any foul play. He carefully worked around the dozens of people squeezed in the living room. After thanking the family for protecting Grandma while she drove, I began gathering them for prayer and reflection. Gathering the family, with their loved one lying on the floor, was bitter.

Sweet memories began pouring from trembling lips. Grandpa Rich* was a prankster. One grandchild still had the fake voicemails from him. Once Rich impersonated a banker calling with bad news about identity theft. Another granddaughter's message was from a Mexican divorce court verifying the correct spelling of her name before finalizing paperwork. She has never been married. Stories and nodding heads made smiles contagious.

As we smiled and shared, Joe was able to conduct police work quietly in the background.

I learned children's names, the order of the grandchildren, and the leaders, followers and antagonists in the family. When the victim advocate arrived, I was able to catch her up quickly. When the coroner arrived, instead of rushing en masse, the family was unified in sending one or two siblings to answer questions. The more I learned, the more time passed; Ruth was almost home.

Ruth had to be told with compassion and clarity about her husband's death. No one wanted to complete the bitter task of death notification. After prayer, the family established it was best for the chaplain to inform Ruth.

Because of the financial support I received from ministry partners, I was able to attend a training on death notifications. The International Conference of Police Chaplains taught me how to deliver bitter news. The following is from the training I received:

  1. In Person — Always make death notification in person, not by telephone. It is very important to provide the survivor with a human presence or “presence of compassion” during an extremely stressful time. Notifiers who are present can help if the survivor has a dangerous shock reaction, which is not at all uncommon, and they can help the survivor move through this most difficult moment.
  2. In Time — and with certainty. Provide notification as soon as possible, but be absolutely sure, first, that there is positive identification of the victim. Notify next of kin and others who live in the same household, including roommates and unmarried partners.
  3. In Pairs — Always try to have two people present to make the notification.
  4. In Plain Language — Inform the survivor of the death, speaking slowly and carefully giving any details that are available. Then calmly answer any questions the survivor may have.
  5. With Compassion — Survivors bear the burden of inevitable responsibilities. You can help them begin to move through the mourning and grieving process by providing immediate direction in dealing with the death.

Equipping missionaries to do the work of ministry is important work. As a Reliant missionary raising and maintaining my full support, I will be able to continue attending the kinds of trainings that readied me to meet Ruth for the first time.

Ruth pulled into the driveway, and I met her with the family's designated leader. In time and plain language, I informed Ruth of Rich's death. She was placed in the loving care of her family. After following up with the family and wrapping up loose ends, Joe handed details to the coroner, and we walked toward the cruiser.

Before we drove away, the family thanked us. I was thankful they let me laugh and cry with them. Reliant equips me to continue serving cops and the community as a chaplain and to show them the love Jesus has for them at their most bitter (and sometimes sweet) moments.

*Name changed for confidentiality.