Thursday, January 19, 2012

Public Loss, Private Pain

'Michael' left us yesterday.

With no notice and little fanfare, the small tree that graced the right-of-way in front of our house in Leetsdale was unceremoniously removed. After contacting the borough office, they quickly owned up to being responsible - Public Works Director Doug Ford stated that he removed it because it was "obviously dead", and that they would be replacing it with another come spring.

Leslie was somewhat upset about this. The tree was planted by the borough 5 or so years ago, when her younger daughter Michaela was still alive, and naming every tree, bush, and plant in and around the yard. She named the tree Michael. Leslie thought for sure that the tree had bloomed over this past spring and summer, and questioned how anyone could really say a small tree like this is "obviously dead" in the dead of winter.

I conveyed her concerns to Mr. Ford, along with an admonition that he could have at least left a note on the door. He was unconvinced about the tree's viability, but seemed mildly sympathetic to my concerns about communicating with citizens.

In reality, you can't fault the borough. They're just doing a job and providing a service. They had no idea about the sentiment associated with this particular lowly tree, and if it was dead, it needed to be removed. Like so many other impacts of this life, one's ability to absorb the shocks, learn from them, and move on is part of what defines life itself. As one friend on Facebook has brought to my attention of late, "Sooner or later you have to give up all hope for a better past".

Even with this in mind, however, I cannot personally begin to fathom the anguish of losing a child. All I can do is draw on what I know from my own life, and try to be as supportive and loving as I can. I got to see my own son over the New Years' weekend. After returning to Colorado, he promptly ate it while snowboarding, and found himself lamenting the Steelers' fate at the hand of Tim Tebow from the waiting room of Community ER. Luckily, he is making a steady recovery from the effects of just a pinched nerve.

The last several weeks, which encompass the passing of one year into another, seem fraught with all manner of stress points - political, personal, presidential, predictional. If the Mayan calendar is to be given any credence at all, and the possibility of apocalypse is upon us, will Mel Gibson direct it? 

Leslie and I watched the movie Soul Surfer last night - based on the true story of a champion teenage surfer whose faith and courage helps her to transcend the effects of a devastating injury. I'll take that kind of attitude and self-confidence into the abyss any day of the week.

In the course of life and work I encounter many whose lives are dealt tragic blows, and at the same time are thrust into the public perception - for a moment, sometimes longer. They must try to pick up the pieces as best they can, often with the cameras rolling.

Before Christmas, the line of duty death of East Washington (Pa.) police officer John David Dryer was tragic enough without the revelation that he was also a dedicated and respected veterinarian, who operated his own clinic in Washington proper. Leslie thought she had heard of him, but had never met him. 

As a volunteer firefighter and Game Commission officer as well, Dr. Dryer's commitment to service extended above what American society seems to think is a citizen's call to duty these days. His passing and legacy were something that touched us beyond the normal measure.

There are fundraising efforts afoot to honor Dr. / Officer Dryer's memory, and provide assistance for his special needs son. Please consider lending your assistance.

During one recent shift, I answered three 9-1-1 calls from three separate people who found loved ones deceased. It’s my job to get the most critical information – where are you, what’s the problem – in a calm, dispassionate way, while still conveying an attitude of compassion and caring toward the caller and their plight. It’s a delicate balance to maintain, especially with hysterical callers or other out-of-control situations.

People who work in public safety have reactions to these kinds of situations just like any human being does. There are specialized resources available for them to help deal with what is known as Critical Incident Stress. Over my career, acceptance of these resources has penetrated some of the cultural and social barriers that permeate these disciplines, and that’s a good thing.

Still, nothing can really prepare you for dealing with the death of someone close to you. From both a professional and personal level, the loss of co-workers and family members hits the hardest, and all of us need help at times. Inevitably we must all find our own path through the five stages of grief - hopefully a healthy path - until we come out a more "human" being on the other side.

Making this kind of transition all the more difficult is when ambiguity and confusion about a person or set of circumstances clouds the path by which we navigate our feelings. Another friend on Facebook offered me some sage advice in this area:
One way I put situations into perspective is to view them as if I or my family was inserted into them and ask myself how would I would I feel...etc. It is a very sobering way of corralling my emotions.
Such seems to be the case with the untimely and tragic death of Charles "Chaz" Buswell, age 19, on January 5. Mr. Buswell's public life was a turbulent one in recent months. You can read more about this here.

Mr. Buswell chose to post a final farewell to family, friends and others via Facebook. While his page has since been taken down, his final post is still available here.

His family chose to observe and mourn his passing privately; I will not attempt to embellish any of these circumstances with any feeble efforts at analysis, or attempting in vain to achieve an earthly understanding of this tragedy. Such an understanding feels to me to be one for each individual and their God, "whatever you conceive Him to be".

Still, as many young people search for answers and understanding in their lives, and many in the public safety and criminal justice communities try to make sense of and learn from cases like John David Dryer's and Chaz Buswell's, there is a need to rely on each other, and on those who have trod the path before us. 

All I know is that if my family were inserted into these circumstances, I would want to try to spare others the same pain and anguish, with the knowledge that the God I believe in did not mean for us to feel alone and helpless, or to isolate ourselves.

I'll conclude with a clip from a movie that is one of my most recent favorites. I got it for Christmas - thanks, Gianna. While not the most technologically savvy or visually stimulating scene, it is by far the most significant - for me.

Leslie told me that she did not want another tree planted in front of the house.

Maybe they'll at least let us hold on to Michael's stump for a while.

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