When I started as a fire chaplain the senior chaplain who was mentoring me told me not to say anything on our first death call. I still remember the call vividly. I remember sitting in the kitchen with the family with long (and personally very uncomfortable) gaps of silence where nobody said anything while we waited for the Deputy to come out and do the death investigation. And I remember that the deceased lay in her bed in her bedroom down the hall having never got up from her afternoon nap. In all that day, there were three family members and two chaplains left on scene after our fire crew departed. And the shock and wound of the event needed a clear path towards healing for hearts for this family. And this family started to find this healing in the silence.
By our nature we as humans don't like silence. We naturally want to fill the silence with something. Be it a radio, noise of a fan, or just mindless chatter between friends, we want something to occupy the silent space. But in the case of a family who has just experienced a cardiac arrest, the silence is something we chaplains should learn to embrace.
What are people doing in those stretches of silence?
First of all, people are in shock. The announcement of the death of a loved one can bring a deep wound. People are coming to grips with the trauma that has just come on them. Sometimes they are thinking about a lot of things, their minds going a million miles a minute, or sometimes they are thinking about absolutely nothing at all. Usually after this shock wears off, they move to a more contemplative posture of thinking, praying and remembering, but a lot of times still in silence. I can usually tell when they make this transition. They change the look on their face, shift in their seat, or get up and move. Watch for it.
So, what is a chaplain to do in these times?
1. First of all, honor the silence and let God be God.
These folks may be dealing with God in the most intense prayer at this time. You as a chaplain do not necessarily need to interfere. Part of the ministry of presence is that you are a physical reminder that God is there. Let God do His work in their hearts; let the ministry of presence do its work in the silence.
2. As a member of your department you may have some additional responsibilities.
As an expert witness you will see and hear things on scene that don't come under the umbrella of Priest/Penitent or Clergy Privilege. In those cases you are expected to report. For example, while waiting for the investigation team to arrive you may witness a family member remove something from a room or take a particular piece of jewelry off the deceased. In those cases there is no confession and what you witnessed should be noted in an official report as well as discretely reported to the investigation team. This will help protect both you and your first responders if that "special ring" winds up missing. Your silent presence can be a deterrent, though a nonthreatening one, to those who are intent on doing something wrong.
3. In the silence you are also watching the health of those around you.
There have been occasions where I have called the ambulance back to the scene to take care of a family member. Grief can be physically hard on the body, and those who have medical issues such as asthma, heart disease, and diabetes can be particularly vulnerable. While not all chaplains are fully medically trained, we should be aware of when someone is truly in distress and ready to act. In the silence you can observe what is not being spoken.
4. But most of all, in the silence is a time for prayer.
Use this time to lift up the survivors to God. The survivors may or may not know God. They may be actively engaged in prayer or they may be in shock and not able to take in the enormity of the situation. Either way, it is our responsibility as chaplains to carry them to God in prayer at this time. And in the silence, we can hear just how God wants us to pray.
Chaplain Chris M. Wade
South Carolina Public Safety Chaplains Association