She was sitting on the back of a tailgate a few yards away from where tragedy had just unfolded. It was still a fairly chaotic scene. One of the investigating officers motioned for me to join him, as he walked toward this young woman. He told her that her relative had not survived the injuries that were sustained in an incident that had occurred a few moments before she arrived at the scene.
The officer soon resumed his investigative responsibilities and I was then entrusted with her care. As I joined her on the tailgate, I listened as she poured her heart out. Her emotional reflections were followed by periods of silence… If you serve people in crisis, you better feel very comfortable with silence. She proceeded to ask some difficult questions. I answered them directly and truthfully. Victims of traumatic circumstances want a straight answer.
I soon noticed that she was shaking. It wasn’t exactly cold, but I never cease to be amazed at what acute stress does to a persons’ body. I asked her if I could get her a jacket. And her response? “I am fine.” I found that to be an odd response based on what I had just observed. And then it hit me… I instinctively knew that I had broken a fundamental rule…
When you are serving a person in acute crisis, don’t ask dumb questions. There is no doubt that she needed a jacket. She was shaking! My training finally kicked in and I gave her one of the jackets that I keep in my car all of the time. The warmth and security that a warm jacket provided calmed her nerves. The ensuing conversation was meaningful and productive.
A few moments later I walked back toward the tailgate where the woman was sitting. She looked so small enveloped in a man’s jacket. It felt like staring vulnerability in the face. I took a mental note to pick up some coats in smaller sizes when I had an opportunity. But then I thought better of it. My mind flashed back to sharing my Texas Tech hoodie with a 14-year-old girl on a cold January night several years ago. Her father had just been shot and killed. The home was a crime scene, so I sat with her in the back of a state trooper’s car. And as I recall, she too was shaking uncontrollably. And I recalled sitting on a boat dock with a woman late one winter night, as we observed a search and rescue team searching for her father’s body in a lake. She too wore my coat. And once again it was way too big. In each of these cases, my jackets functioned more like a blanket. There is something sacred about sharing a personal belonging with a person during a traumatic event. It gives new meaning to the concept of ministry of presence.
When someone asks me what a law enforcement chaplain does, I suppose I should tell them: “I share my coats!” That would be an accurate answer, because it occurs with some frequency. I will actually have a two-fold answer. I will tell them that I serve vulnerable people to the best of my ability. And I will also tell them that I try to purposely avoid asking dumb questions. At least most of the time… Why don’t we all try to serve one another today without pausing first to ask questions. The truth is: people in acute crisis have a limited ability to answer even the most basic inquires.