I became a counsellor and a chaplain because I was called to be present with people who struggle to find meaning. As a chaplain in the Fire Department, I am present with folks in and out of the uniform.
“9-1-1 dispatch to Fitchburg firefighters, we have a Motor Vehicle Accident Car and Truck with entrapment 6292 Highway 202, Gardner. That’s a Motor Vehicle Accident Car and Truck with entrapment 6292 Highway 202, Gardner, time is 19:14.”
The scene was dismal. A white Mazda was under a grain truck, struck head on. The car was crushed from the bumper to the back seat.
We knew the driver was dead.
In those circumstances, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police Accident Reconstruction Unit leaves everything as it is. It was no longer an emergency.
They began measuring. No one was on the scene except a few emergency personnel. But, as the Reconstruction Unit recorded their observations, a small group of teens arrived on foot. An older couple, Mark and Kelly, arrived as well. They stood apart, holding to each other tightly, watching from a grassy knoll.
I approached, bottle of water in hand. “Can I offer you some water?” Both shook their heads, barely sparing me a glance as they continued to watch the scene.
“No, it’s ok… I think it’s our son in that car.”
I joined the couple on the knoll in silent vigil.
The teens slowly gravitated toward the couple. They explained they’d been at a pit party. They knew the couple’s two sons, Jackson and Daniel. Both boys had been in attendance with their friends.
The eldest, Jackson, decided to go get some music. He took the car parked at the back of the line in what he expected to be a moment’s errand. In his haste, he darted around a slower vehicle. And into the path of a grain truck.
One of the teens identified the car as hers.
Jackson and his brother, Daniel, were reckless drivers, impulsive, self-serving, and known to the police for their attitude.
Mark, Kelly, and I stood for hours. No one able to do anything but wait.
Grace radically touches us all. It is present to the human rawness shared by all of us, and it challenges us to intimacy in sharing that rawness.
For Mark and Kelly, the teens, and for me, all efforts for efficiency, affirmation, positive self talk, legislated goodness, triumphalism is torched at a moment like this. It left us huddling together on that grassy knoll, raw, stripped of defences, standing with the naked reality.
First responders on the scene have a job to do. When the job is done, they go home. The chaplain’s job does not end there.
The chaplain’s job is to not rescue but to listen, stand, be still while wounded, to remain raw and naked in that moment with those who suffer.
We are tempted to make meaning in the face of meaninglessness. Often, we use really bad assumptions on which to build our thinking. Making bad assumptions feels better than accepting nothingness.
The problem with these assumptions is they collapse and we fall back into despair again. The temporary relief is gone and we scramble to get away from the overwhelm. This is life. In these circumstances, the best we can hope for is to be present in the despair until grace arrives.
I wish the story of Mark and Kelly ended there. The darkness became darker.
“9-1-1 dispatch to Fitchburg firefighters we have a MVA involving Car and Motorcycle with entrapment, 7227 Highway 202 in Gardner, in front of Tim Horton’s, that’s a MVA involving Car and Motorcycle with entrapment, 7227 Highway 202 in Gardner, in front of Tim Horton’s, time is 21:43.”
To regular listeners, that sounded bad, but to us with experience, we understood what was said.
Entrapment means a person is stuck and can’t get out.
People on motorcycles don’t get stuck on their bikes during a motor vehicle accident. The entrapment means the car. It means the motorcycle hit the car so hard, the people can’t get out. You know the biker is dead.
The biker had been showing off, pulling the front wheel of the bike off the ground. He was stunting just after dusk and as he lifted his wheel, the headlight pointed skyward.
In the growing dark, with headlight lifted high, the oncoming vehicle couldn’t see the motorcycle. The car pulled out believing nothing was coming. Collision was inevitable.
I could see the biker on the ground, broken, when I arrived on the scene. A man knelt beside the body, curled over top as if to protect the biker.
As I approached, he looked up. “Jeff, this isn’t fair.”
Mark’s pain was visceral. It wasn’t fair. There would be no “getting over it”, the loss of two sons. Suggesting so would only be me attempting a temporary rescue from despair. I could only remain present with him as he mourned.
Two sons, two brothers, two parents shattered.
Referral for professional help is the next step, though it isn’t always welcomed. Sometimes the pain of loss is the only companion that remains. The belief is, though subconscious, ‘if I get help, I will lose all I have left’. In the presences of that pain, relationships end, friendships end, family ends, and even marriages end.
Professional help can make a difference. Instead of of a cycle that alternates between wishing things were different and cynicism, professional talk therapy is a relationship in the midst of the trauma presenting a new option instead of choosing between keeping memories and moving on. The two do not have to compete.
As a Chaplain and counsellor, I facilitate the link to the community resources.
Nothing can begin to compensate for the loss felt by Mark and Kelly. What a community offers is an open heart by listening and imagining. This allows the community to experience graceful compassion, this allows Mark and Kelly to experience connection. It breaks isolation and fear and offers instead grace, enrichment and grounded normalcy for healing.
If you or someone you know would benefit from access to resources and/or counselling, or from reading my articles, I encourage you to share this blog post with them. Additionally, you can subscribe to my mailing list to stay current with articles, events and appearances.