I want to share with you a death notification I was recently part of. I share it partly for therapy but mainly so you know a little about the experience of both the families of Soldiers who die and the Soldiers sent to notify those families of their loved one’s death.
A chaplain is usually half of a notification team when a Soldier dies and their family members are notified. The chaplain never (or is never supposed to) give the notification, but is rather there to be spiritual and moral support for those now suffering loss. If the chaplain makes the notification (which sometimes happens when the notifying officer is unable to, being too choked up for example–though the notification officer who I went with did an excellent job!) the chaplain is then saddled with the bad news that he/she just gave and then finds it hard to be received as a comfort agent. The family equates the chaplain with the bad news he/she just gave.
This notification was to the father of a Soldier who died of suspected self-inflicted wounds. A suicide. Suicide deaths, for me, are harder than combat deaths. In combat, at least the Soldier died for something they believed in or for a cause greater than themself. A suicide is a death which is so much more difficult for us to understand. Nevertheless, as a Soldier on active duty, the Soldier’s family members deserve the honor of an “official” notification of their loved one’s passing regardless of how they passed. Even under these circumstances, however, being part of a death notification team is still an honor as we acknowledge the service of that Soldier as well as the memory of the soldier which the family holds onto. One of the primary roles of the chaplain is to “honor the dead” regardless of how that death occurred.
The advance of technology with cell phones, rapid texting and social media has made the need for the notification team to get to the next-of-kin quickly even more important. To hear about your son or daughter’s death from a Facebook post or a phone call can be devastating and does not give the Soldier or the family member the honor which is deserved. But many times, we arrive to make the notification only to discover that they had already received a call from another family member or friend so have been able to process the news a bit before our arrival. While this is never ideal, it does make the notification a bit easier just because the family members aren’t hearing from you the news for the first time. However, the goal remains that the families are first notified of their loved one’s death by an official notification team representing the Secretary of the Army.
When we arrived at the home of our Soldier’s father and knocked on the door he came out onto his porch very friendly and introduced himself. My thought was that he had already heard about his son’s death and was trying to put us at ease realizing the difficult situation we were in. We introduced ourselves and confirmed that he was the man we were looking for, saying that we were there from Fort Leonard Wood to speak with him. He then proudly said with a smile the words that caused my heart to drop, “I have a son in the Army!”
He didn’t know.
We asked if we could go inside and sit down, so he called into his wife to put the dog into the kennel, that a couple of Soldiers from Fort Leonard Wood were here to see them. After she did, he invited us in and offered us a seat. My partner asked if his wife could join us but she said she had to get the ice cream put away first, that she would be there in a minute (they had just returned home from the grocery store as we arrived). While we were waiting for her, the father talked more about his Soldier-son, about how he was trying to get him to Fort Leonard Wood to be closer to home.
Again, my heart sank and I could barely hold back the tears knowing the news we were there to share with him about his son.
Still waiting for his wife, I changed the subject to his hobby of amateur radio and asked what his farthest communication was, to which he answered, “Belgium” and that when he gets back on he expected to talk to someone in Hawaii.
Finally his wife joined us and the Master Sergent with me started sharing the news. Slowly and respectfully he began with something like this:
The Secretary of the Army has asked me to share with you his deepest regrets . . .
He then went on to give as many of the details as we had surrounding his child’s death. I watched as tears welled up in the father’s eyes, as they did in mine. I wasn’t sure what to expect, you never do in these situations, but he took the news calmly and with dignity.
He explained how his son had been going through some tough situations and that he had seemed depressed lately. He said that he told him he could always call if he needed to talk, and seemed disappointed that he hadn’t called but instead took his life. I tried to assure him that knowing that his father was there for him was most certainly a comfort to him, to which he agreed and added that his son really loved the Army, though.
I asked if there was anyone we could call for them but they said they would call their minister later. They went on to describe their faith as something that was a vital part of their life. I suggested that it was that faith that would help them through this difficult time.
One of the hard things that must be done during the notification visit is to try to confirm and get as much information as possible to aid in the rest of the casualty assistance the Army provides to the family. The Notification Officer did a good job going through the paperwork and asking the important questions while being very respectful of the family’s feelings.
Finally, with the notification complete and the information gathered, I asked if there was anything at all that I could do for them, to which they thanked me but said that they would be fine. I assured them that as God brought their faces to my mind that I would say a prayer for them, so they were not alone. They seemed to appreciate that.
We left the house and got on our way. The Notification Officer called the Casualty Assistance Office and let them know that the notification had been made … then we were finally able to breathe.
On our way home, an interesting discussion ensued. The Notification Officer that I was sent with is a black man. He told me that when he saw the father, a big guy with a bandana tied around his head who lived out in the backcountry of Missouri, he was concerned about the response he would receive when giving the news. This Master Sergeant has been the brunt of some unfair hate and prejudice in the past and admitted he expected the same from this man by the looks of him. I then confessed that I had thought of the same thing when I laid eyes on him. We both quickly agreed, however, that this couple exhibited anything but hate or prejudice. They were loving and compassionate, even as they were receiving the worst news you can receive about your son. The father even thanked us for coming, and for our service.
So while this was a very tough notification as I watched a father learn of his son’s death, I was also encouraged. I was encouraged because it is always a privilege to honor men and women who have served their country. I was encouraged because this couple could testify that their faith in God can -and will- help them through this most terrible time. I was encouraged because in the midst of tragedy, these people could still express love to us- the bearers of such bad news. Maybe there is still hope for us.
Photo credits: Praying Soldier from backyardworkshop.com; Soldier in front of flag from docstoc.com; Garden with sun rays from fanpop.com.