That’s what I said at the 10 AM worship service on Sunday right after the prayer before the sermon. Now, normally, I would have prayed the prayer and just gone into my sermon on “The Reign of Christ” for “Christ the King Sunday.” But not this time.
“I have a confession to make,” I said. “I’m distracted this morning. I am having a hard time focusing because of the events of the last day. I’m going to keep going, but I can’t seem to stop thinking about Rob.”
I prayed a silent prayer. I took a breath. I went on. My heart was clearly not in the sermon although I wanted it to be.
Rob is one of our church folks. He’s a good man. He’s the kind of person about whom people say “He has a big heart” or “He’s a ‘salt-of-the-earth’ type guy.” He put a lot of hours into the church construction process. He’s always looked out for our family. He’s been very active in the community. He has a lovely wife. He has two great kids. He was at our Community Thanksgiving Dinner last Wednesday, even baking a turkey, and he was at my house the next day, dropping off two very large salmon. And he died tragically on Saturday on the highway, doing his job for the Department of Transportation. Family, friends, myself, and the larger community have all been in shock since we found out. Some folks found out when they heard it from my lips at the start worship that day. It was a challenge thinking about anything else and the congregation was well aware that I was having a difficult time.
I have, over the 12 years I’ve been in Girdwood, dealt with several traumatic deaths. I have held services for persons I’ve cared about and for families I have loved. Some persons have died way too young. But, this was the first time I think I was truly feeling the shock of a loss of one of our parishioners to this extent. This was different for me.
I was trying to figure out why this was the case. I was trying to figure out why this was hitting me in a different way than, really, all of the other times I’ve had to deal with someone dying. And I think I figured out some things.
In most previous cases, this is how it happened… I received a call from the Fire Department or the State Troopers and and was immediately called “in to work.” There was a person who needed pastoral care. I was able to emotionally distance myself from what was going on because “I was on the clock” and had put on my pastoral hat, stepping into the role. There was work to be done. This is kind of like what happens with the Fire Fighters and EMTs when they respond to an emergency call. This is their training. Adrenaline kicks in. They are able to put aside the emotions and do their job.
This time, however, I knew pretty early that something was wrong, very wrong. I knew that someone had died on the highway. But it was over three hours, with a lot of it spent alone at the fire station, before I found out that my friend had died. I was not prepared for it to be someone I knew so well. Plus, I couldn’t contact the family that evening so I didn’t have to jump into the pastoral role. I didn’t have my usual psychological defense mechanism of immersing myself in work. I was left with the grief and shock. And, when Sunday morning rolled around, I was dealing with this grief and shock along with, and in front of, everyone.
It’s been a couple of days now and I’ve been working with the family. There are plans to be made. There are services to lead. There is work to be done.
But it’s been interesting seeing how the shock and grief has been affecting me. The members of the fire department knew that I had lost a friend. Even as I tried to counsel them on Saturday, they were providing support for me. The church could tell that I was having a difficult time focusing and I freely admitted this in my before-sermon-confession. One of our church members, a counselor, even gave me a call Sunday afternoon to check in with me and see how I was doing. She understands the burden of being a caregiver in situations where you need the receive care as much as you’re giving it.
And I’m better today. I’m not ALL better. But I’m better…better than Sunday morning.
And each day will get a little better as roles and responsibilities shape my life. The same will happen for others who lost someone they cared for.
That’s how it works.
But today my heart is still focused on Rob and his family. I am deeply sorry for their loss. They are constantly on my mind and in every silent prayer. I will do whatever I can to help them while I’m still in Girdwood over the next month or so. I will remain thankful to have known their husband and father.
One of our 8:30 AM worship folks — the faithful few — said this about Rob’s death: “You know, Jim, we don’t have enough really good people in the world and it saddens me that we lost one.”
It saddens me as well.
But in my sadness I will lift up the family. I’ll pray for them. And I ask you to pray for them as well.
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