Behind You All the Way: The Work of a Fire Chaplain

Kneeling firefighter

By Wendy Norris

I was sitting on a physician’s stool in the corner of trauma bay 2 at the local hospital emergency room. My fingers interlaced tightly, I silently prayed to myself as I listened to the low whispers and the muffled crying coming from a group of individuals who had gathered around the broken body of a firefighter whom a physician had recently declared deceased. He was covered by stark, white, pressed hospital sheets. Only his bruised face and one hand were visible. Even his head had been carefully covered by towels that had been strategically tucked and folded around his wounds. The buzzing of the ceiling lights seemed deafening in that moment, and the lights almost felt blinding–the senses can be heightened during times of great stress. My prayers were mixed with internal dialogue. I wondered if they noticed the details that seemed so pronounced to me. Did they see that the heart monitor had been left on but was disconnected and silenced? Only dashed lines and a blinking question mark remained on the screen. Did they notice the dirt and grime on their loved one’s hand? Did they realize that the nurses had cleaned him and tucked the sheets around him ever so gently and in such a way to allow them one more glimpse of his face? Did they hear the buzzing of that ceiling light?

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As a first responder, fire chaplain, and the CEO of the Texas Line of Duty Death Task Force, I have entered into the dirty, messy, deep pit of grief and loss many times. I knew this scene all too well. It could have been played out on the living room floor of a stranger’s home. It could have taken place next to a crumpled car left in the passing lane of a freeway. Death knows no bounds. Grief cares not who it takes captive. Sudden and traumatic loss or injury tends to suck the breath out of those left behind. It stirs up intense emotions and rips any feelings of normalcy into shreds. It flips the switch from a seemingly sunny day into a dark night of the soul. In these anguished but precious moments, when a person feels the most vulnerable, it becomes the chaplain’s work to lead through the dark, to stand beside and encourage and follow behind to support. Only through education and experience does the chaplain figure out the best place to position themselves alongside those that are suffering.

As I watched and listened to the group that was gathered around the firefighter, I noticed that one of the women became increasingly despondent. With her elbows balanced on the gurney handrails and her face buried in her hands, she began to sway side to side as her cries became louder and deeper. The grief had begun to take hold of her heart. The child to her right stood stoically by her side, biting his lip, wearing a thousand-yard stare. The woman to her left gently placed her hand onto the shoulder of the weeping woman and cried with her. The chief, standing behind her, closed his eyes took a deep breath, and also placed his hand on her shoulder. I quickly got up and walked toward the foot of the bed. I stood for a moment, said another quick prayer, and started to make my way slowly to the woman’s side. There, I silently waited by her and the child, trying to figure out a way to bear some of her pain, knowing that would never be possible. I placed my hand on her shoulder and waited. After a few moments, she looked up at me through tear-filled eyes and said, “I don’t know how to do this. I don’t know where to go from here. I don’t know what happens next.” I looked back at her, and with every ounce of encouragement that I could muster up, I replied, “I will help you. I will guide you as you take your next steps.” In that moment I wanted to be someone who could hold the lantern up in that deep dark pit and help lead her through those first few days and weeks of loss. As chaplains, we are called to be the light in the dark, to help provide strength and guidance on a shaky, unstable path. We are sometimes called to lead in moments when a person feels like they cannot go on. Walking ahead with the lantern of hope held high is an important task for a chaplain.

The heavy rains had started moving in. We had been preparing for Hurricane Harvey for days but it seemed as if it would never arrive. Late on Saturday, August 26, 2017, Harvey moved in and parked right on top of Houston for days. I had gone home for a couple of hours to get some rest, thinking we had a bit more time before the worst of it would hit. When it moved in, however, the floodwaters rose quickly, and the calls for help began pouring in. The water in my neighborhood rose quickly but I knew I had to get back to the station. Through the driving rain, I trudged a mile through waist-deep, murky, rushing water to get back to the fire station.

Within minutes of arriving, a rescue Humvee pulled up with two sheriff’s officers waving and shouting. They called for help, stating they had a woman in labor that needed to be rescued and taken to the hospital. Without hesitation, my husband by my side (he is also a firefighter), we shoved ourselves into the vehicle and took off into the flood. It was past midnight and the rain was coming down furiously. The dark of night seemed to take on an eerie feel as we got our patient settled into the Humvee. As we slowly started making our way to the hospital, we ended up rescuing more and more people who were trying to escape the flooding. At one point we had 12 individuals packed into the vehicle; it felt like a sardine can.

The rain was coming down in sheets and the water was starting to rise inside of the vehicle. It slowly crept up to our knees and then up to our waist. The panic in the air was palpable as we could feel the floodwater start to move up to our chest level. I was timing the pregnant patient’s contractions even as I was keeping the head of a young child above the flood waters that was now moving up to our shoulders. She looked at me with panic and start to cry softly. I grabbed her by the hand and said, “I’m beside you all the way!”

In that moment, I admit that I was panicking a bit as well. Never had I been trapped in a vehicle with floodwaters rising so quickly. I felt helpless and powerless. I had to put every bit of trust in the officers who were navigating this rescue vehicle through such a scene. Even though I had my own fears, I needed to push past them and help ease her fears. As a chaplain, we are often called to walk beside a person in their darkest hours. Sometimes that literally means we physically support a person through a disaster, on a fire or accident scene, or in a hospital. On our shoulders we help bear the heavy weight of fear, sadness, and sometimes anger.

On May 18, 2018, shots rang out through the halls of Santa Fe High School in Santa Fe, Texas. Within minutes a teenage gunman had taken the lives of eight students, two teachers, critically injured a police officer, and left a small community devastated. As the days and weeks progressed, while the school was trying to put the pieces back together, one police officer fought for his life. He had headed straight into the gunfire, trying to stop the shooter, and had gotten struck. At first his prognosis was grim, but he was a fighter and he slowly started making a recovery. While the school and the community were feeling their way through the healing process, this officer was also trying to put his shattered body and life back together. Nearly three months later, the officer found himself back in the hallways of the school with his family and two of his chief officers. He wanted to come back to the site of the shooting and try to make sense of what he experienced and remembered. A law enforcement peer and I joined them to provide support. As we navigated through the school and got closer and closer to ground zero, one of them began to show some hesitation.  I whispered to that person, “I’m behind you all the way.” With a deep breath, and hearts full of courage, we stepped into a place and into a moment that was mixed with deep sorrow, many unanswered questions, and bits of understanding. These steps into that place began the healing process for several that were so deeply wounded both physically and mentally.

As I watched from behind, I thought of my place in this story and in many of the other stories of tragedy in which I had been involved. I have found myself leading, walking beside, and supporting from behind many individuals who have walked the journey of loss, trauma, and grief. Mostly I come behind to provide support and a word of encouragement or prayer when needed. The journey through tragedy is often lonely. We must navigate that road on our own. It’s within our own mind and soul that we must sort through the mess these devastating situations leave behind. However, when one finds themselves in the deep dark pit of difficult emotions or utter loneliness, the chaplain can come behind and offer a light, a hand on the back to steady, an ear to listen, a voice to cut through the piercing silence. When an individual can make that step forward into their journey of healing knowing that there is someone behind them to encourage them on, this sense of camaraderie may allow them to be braver, stronger, and more at peace with the difficult takes that are ahead.

Chaplaincy isn’t just about the spiritual care of an individual, rather it’s a holistic, all-encompassing support service that a person provides to another. Being a chaplain involves coming beside a person to offer friendship and care, leading when the moment feels too dark and hard, and always, always coming behind to comfort, encourage, and support. Being a chaplain involves lots of prayer, yes, but it also involves words of affirmation and mostly a silent presence—a presence that communicates strength and courage and conveys the message that the individual is not alone. I am honored to have been in this role for so many years and to be able to walk with the many individuals experiencing hurt and pain. It is a sacred position to be allowed into some of the most vulnerable moments a person can ever experience. This fact has not been lost on me.  My hope is not only to be able to continue in my role of service but also to encourage and educate others that are considering the role of chaplain. It’s a vitally important one and is a positive addition to any agency for the care of their first responders and the community. 

Wendy Norris is the founder and chief executive officer of the Texas LODD Task Force. She is a master certified chaplain and instructor, a presiding officer on the governor’s advisory panel for the Star of Texas Awards for injured and fallen first responders, and serves as a chaplain and first responder for the Forest Bend (TX) Fire Department. She also serves on the Texas Department of Health’s First Responder Mental Health Working Group and coordinates the Phoenix Project for Injured First Responders working group. She has worked on response teams for local, state and national disasters, including 9/11 and hurricanes Katrina, Ike, and Harvey. Additionally she led the LODD Task Force response during the West (TX) explosion.

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