Lessons learned in the shadow of death
Last Sunday, a soldier stood in the pulpit of the Faith Community Church in Edgartown. A full house listened intently as David Berube, chaplain of the Oak Bluffs police department, described his recent deployment as counselor to grieving families at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, where they had come to witness the dignified transfer of their loved ones' remains from the airplanes which had brought them home from Iraq or Afghanistan.
In his four-month deployment, Mr. Berube's team participated in 180 transfers, watched over the remains of 205 fallen soldiers, and supported 620 family members.
Standing in the pulpit, Mr. Berube did not wear a clerical collar, a suit and tie, or a military dress uniform. He wore camouflage fatigues, the clothes he wore every day to work in Delaware. Mr. Berube is an ordained minister, but the only sign of his military chaplaincy is a tiny, unobtrusive cross embroidered near his heart.
The "dignified transfer" of remains is not a funeral or a military ceremony, Mr. Berube explained, and the families, he felt, were comforted that he was dressed as their fallen soldiers might have been, and as the comrades who brought them home. His primary assignment was to reassure the families that his team was there to watch over and care for the soldier until he was buried.
Mr. Berube framed his sermon as "Lessons the Lord taught me on my deployment."
Although grief is universal, everyone's grief is unique. He met widows, parents, siblings, friends. Mr. Berube said that he learned to let each member of each family set the pace. No one should be told what to feel or not feel. His team compared the transfer process to a kind of dance, and it was important to let the survivors take the lead. He found survivors who were shocked, in denial, angry, accepting, and numb.
This lesson, he said, is one everyone can use. The first thing to do is to listen, the second thing to do is to listen, and the third thing to do - he left a blank and the congregation filled it in - is to listen.
The second lesson was that important as words are, words are sometimes overrated. Mr. Berube quoted chapter 13 of the book of Job. When the comforters come to Job, they try to explain his affliction at such length that Job finally says, "Please just be quiet." Mr. Berube said that he cringes when he hears someone say, "I know how you feel."
The third lesson, Mr. Berube said, is that grieving persons don't expect you to fix their grief, but they appreciate it if you walk with them through it. He quoted Romans 12:15, "Mourn with those who mourn." The lesson applied whether the survivor was an 18-year-old widow wracked by uncontrollable weeping, or a father estranged from his family who didn't know how to fit into the scene. For the congregation, Mr. Berube's advice was, "You can't fix it. Just be there. Just stay."
The fourth lesson, Mr. Berube told the congregation, was the value of teamwork. He included, of course, the seven members of his "dignified transfer" team, but also other, unseen parts of the team, by which he meant God, Jesus, and even those at home who he felt were praying for him. He told the congregation he was thankful to God for giving him this experience, the resources to walk through grief every day, and "the support team He put around me."
It was not an easy deployment. The particular assignment Mr. Berube drew, counseling the families, "was the one job I hoped I didn't get assigned."
"It turned out to be a perfect fit," he said, and for him "a life-changing experience." He told the congregation that he feels he has truly "walked through the valley of the shadow of death." He added that he would be proud to do another deployment there.