It's a terrifying and morbid thought, but in my line of work it's sometimes impossible to keep it at bay: I've wondered what I might do if one of my children were killed. I've wondered if I could somehow miraculously remain a minister and comfort those who were also grieving horrific losses? I'm grateful I haven't had to endure that experience, but I still wonder.
I'm sure my friend Sue Wintz wondered too. Like most of us who serve as pediatric chaplains, Sue has long known the meaning of the scriptural admonition foretelling the "rain on the just and on the unjust" (Matthew 5:45 NKJV), but somehow she'd always managed to carry a good umbrella.
Then, on December 2, 2003, Sue's seventeen-year-old daughter, Sarah, was killed in a car accident. As they struggled to survive this unimaginable blow, Sue talked to me about the ways she and her minister husband, Mike, have learned to better align their professional roles with the lessons they've learned from losing a child.
In the days and weeks after the accident, Sue said, "We didn't sleep or eat; we felt like we were in a fog. I had absolutely no idea how deep and dark the hole of parental grief would be."
Yet despite the fog, the Wintz family knew, from her professional perspective, that their "feelings were normal and OK," she said. But the heartbreaking ordeal also demonstrated to her that some professionals "just don't get it sometimes." In fact, a day after the accident, one colleague told her, "You aren't reacting very professionally."
Some even told the Wintzes their grief should be "over" in a matter of months, and soon those acquaintances stopped mentioning Sarah by name. Unbelievably, one colleague even told Sue, "The 'honeymoon year'' is over, so you should move on." Sue described these people as "toxic" and noted that grieving parents become very adept at recognizing the ones who are helpful "and the ones who should be avoided."
Gradually Sue has regained some of her former confidence. "I was a good chaplain before my daughter's death," she said, "but through our experience I've learned some things that did and didn't help."
Twenty-five days after Sarah's death, Sue listed those things in her journal. And now, she's asked me to share part of that list with you. Helped: People who checked on us without an agenda and took care of details like answering our phone, keeping lists of what people brought, cleaning our house, and making sure our cars were running well.
Didn't help: Trying to micromanage aspects of our grief by telling me when I needed to eat and rest or take anxiety medications.
Helped: Food brought every other day, beginning the second week of the accident.
Didn't help: So much food brought all at once.
Helped: People telling me, "My child died too. I'm here for you."
Didn't help: People claiming to know how I feel because their father/friend/dog died.
Helped: The hundreds of people who came to the service and our amazing son, who put together the slide show of Sarah's life.
Didn't help: Giving me advice on when I needed—or didn't need—to go through Sarah's room and things.
Helped: Carolers and Secret Santa gifts. Sarah loved Christmas.
Didn't help: Telling me I needed to realize there are also "others having a bad time in their lives right now."
Helped: The people who listened and never told us to stop crying.
Didn't help: Questions asking us who was at fault in the accident.
Helped: Taking me out to lunch and back into the world.
Didn't help: Asking when we're going to get our "lives and work back to normal."
Helped: All the wonderful donations to the memorial scholarship fund, the live plants reminding us of Sarah, and the flowers brought to the site of the accident.
I find it nothing short of miraculous that Sue remains in her job as a pediatric hospital chaplain. She says she finds in that work a gift for sharing with those who have endured similar losses.
She also says she finds a lasting lesson in Thomas Attig's writing about grief and how relationships with loved ones change after their death. Sue adds, "The truth is, it doesn't end; the relationship is miraculously transformed. I knew that concept before Sarah's death, but now it really hits home."