Living Someone Else’s Worst Day

Reverend D. Dean Young
Senior Chaplain and President
Pinellas Chaplains’ Association Inc

The day had been a pleasant one, I had spent it with my family preparing for Christmas festivities. I was holding my youngest son when the alert went off. It said: Signal 7, PD/EMS Involvement, veh vs mc, engulfed in flames. The location was in my response area.

I found my wife, and as calmly as one can be after reading that, I said I had to go. She knows the call can come at any time. She smiled and said, “Be safe, I love you”.

I dressed in my gear as fast as I could and headed toward the scene. I wondered what this scene was going to look like when I got there. Being a Chaplain, I often get very little information before arrival at a scene. This time the information I got was rather accurate, except for PD Involvement which, thankfully, there was none.

Reverend Young

Upon arrival, I exchanged common pleasantries with the state trooper on scene and the local fire department. I was advised a 24-year-old had been driving an SUV that had collided with a motorcycle. The driver of the motorcycle had been ejected and was Signal 7 (deceased) on scene and both vehicles had gone up in flames. I stood there gathering my thoughts for a moment and then knew what I had to do. I began to administer Crisis CPR with the young driver and his mother who had arrived to console him.

Crisis CPR, as I have dearly termed it, is when we have living victims, and/or individuals, involved in a deadly crash, or a crisis situation, where immediate emotional care is needed. You may wonder how we do CPR on the living. I begin by introducing myself and being a calm presence for them. I engage in small talk and try to keep them low-key and unruffled as possible, considering the circumstances. If they are being interviewed by Traffic Homicide we do not discuss the crash, instead we talk about anything and everything but the crash.

A second trooper, whom I knew very well, came over to where I was standing. He asked me to accompany him. We proceeded to where the victim lay, covered with a white sheet. He prepared me for what we were about to see. Slowly, and with much respect, the trooper lifted the sheet and identified the victim. As we headed back to the patrol cars, he advised that he and I were going to conduct the Notification of Next of Kin. This is a part I never enjoy and it is important we handle this with tact.

I got into my vehicle and followed the trooper. Once we arrived at the residence, it dawned on me that, yet again, I was about to live the worst moment of someone else’s life. As we walked up to the door, I knew this was going to be a hard one. I could hear the Christmas music, and see the tree all-aglow with lights. The television was playing and people were conversing. They were having family time at the holidays.

The trooper knocked on the door and identified himself. A woman answered and he said, with such compassion in his voice, “Are you the Mother of — ?” (he gave the victim’s name). She stated that yes, she was. He said, “Are these your son’s belongings?” as he held up some items. She again said yes. He asked if we could come into the house. He then spoke the words I can’t even imagine hearing. The trooper stated it was with great regret and deepest sympathy that he must advise her that her son had been killed in a traffic crash.

As I knelt down to console the mother while she wept, the thought occurred to me that I was just mere inches from the Christmas tree. The trooper advised her that I was their Police Chaplain and I was there if the family needed any assistance. The trooper held her and allowed her to cry on his shoulder. After the initial shock, we began to administer Crisis Scene CPR, slowly and methodically. I asked if they had a family pastor or church. I made a few phone calls, left some messages, called some additional family members for them, gave them my business card, ensured her support was in place and we left the residence.

When I think of how many times I have done this throughout this last year, I cannot help but realize that I spend a large portion of my life living the worst days of others’ lives. This can have an affect on a person if they aren’t careful. No one is immune to the stressors of emergency services, not even the Chaplain.

So what do I do after a rough night or day in the field? I decompress; I call a friend or another pastor to talk, I hold my children, I kiss my wife. I have learned that through all the tragedy and all the disasters, when that support system is in place, No One Stands Alone!

I remember with clarity my first interaction as a chaplain. It was Labor Day and the weather was beautiful. I had been listening to the calls on the fire department radio, when I heard a water rescue go out in Clearwater Beach. A man, who I was later to find out was a husband and a father, had gotten swept away in the current and pulled out into the channel. After listening to the rescue workers for several hours, and watching their unsuccessful attempts to locate the man, I decided to go see if I could help bring comfort to those on scene.

When I arrived, there was a priest comforting the family. I introduced myself as a chaplain for a neighboring department and offered assistance. I sat with the wife and talked and played with the young children, of whom some were too young to understand what was going on. After several more hours, the priest advised he was going to leave things in my hands and he departed the scene. Day turned into night and eventually the dark consumed the water, and the rescue was called off. This was the first time I felt defeat. This was a beautiful day and a tragic accident.

These stories continue to repeat themselves year after year. Through all of this, I have learned I must talk about the calls: the children that drown, the parents killed in crashes, the loved ones that will never come home, the family of three killed on Christmas Eve and so many more.

I have become the deliverer of bad news, and a comforter, as I live the worst moment of someone else’s life. Many of you who are reading this also live this life as a first responder, firefighter, medic, police officer, hospital ER staff, etc. There is no end to this, and yet, we continue to follow our calling with vigor. Our firefighters run into burning buildings, our police chase armed assailants, our medics patch us up from the battles, and our families feel the brunt of this.

This is where the chaplain comes in. Let me ask you this. Why should you live these moments by yourself? You are not alone. NO ONE STANDS ALONE. ©PCA 2016

In closing, I would encourage you to reach out to your department chaplain. If you don’t have one, then visit Pinellas Chaplains Association and reach out to one of us. Let’s start by talking about our feelings because it is not easy to live the worst day of someone else’s life. In fact, it is hard, extremely hard. I would invite you to talk about your feelings to others. The key to making it from day to day, from incident to incident, is to TALK, TALK, TALK. Until we learn to communicate our feelings to others, we will continue to deal with PTSD, depression, guilt, anger, and suicide alone. Please reach out!

I wish each and every one of you Godspeed and safety.

dean-young-logoAbout the Author: Reverend D. Dean Young is a native of Pinellas County, Florida. He is a veteran of the US Army and a graduate of Trinity Theological Seminary. Rev. Young served as the Fire Chaplain for Madeira Beach (Florida) Fire Department for a period of time. He currently serves on the Pinellas County Emergency Medical Services Advisory Council, is the President of the Pinellas Chaplains Association Inc., and an on-call Victim Advocate and Chaplain for his local district of State Troopers. Rev. Young is a firm supporter of Emergency Services. He has received training as a Suicide Prevention Specialist and Trainer and has also been part of CISM and PTSD training and development. When not working for the betterment of Emergency Services he spends time relaxing with his wife Lynn and his two young sons.