Several weeks ago I returned home after working one of the firefighter fatalities that had occurred over the 4th of July weekend. I have needed some time to regroup and to rest after this one. Over the many years that I have been running the TX Line of Duty Death Task Force, I have adjusted many American flags that drape the caskets of the fallen, I have held the hands of countless families as they grieved the loss of their loved ones, and I have walked many miles on the long and treacherous journey of healing with fire departments that are trying to find a new normal after tragedy.
With most of these fatalities I manage to come through the work relatively unscathed on a psychological level. My heart has certainly been imprinted with the tears of each and every case that I work. Images of the deceased and their loved ones are burned deeply into my mind and I can never forget their stories; but for the most part I am able to leave my job at the doorstep of my office. However, this last case has left an indelible mark upon my soul that will probably not fade for a long, long time. You see, there were young children involved here. Two young girls who have to learn how to face life without their father. How do you look into the eyes of the innocent and try to explain that life can be cruel and unfair? How can you hold a crying child and not have that affect you in some way?
This firefighter was young and his death tragic. He had a chance to say some final words to his wife before he went into the hands of his Father. His close friend, who was not a firefighter but happened to be on scene, pulled him out from under the rubble and encouraged him to hang on for just one more moment. A local pastor, the firefighters and several of the town's citizens stood around him and said a final prayer with him before he was loaded onto the helicopter. He knew his wife was following. He knew he wanted to stay with his family but the damage was too great and the pain too deep and so he also wanted to be with his Lord where he knew his pain would be no more. He struggled and fought for a while but in the end he slipped away. He fought the good fight but the battle was just too big.
On the day of the visitation, the family had requested to bring his children in to spend private time with their father without the questioning eyes of the public upon them. I suggested that they be prepared for what they were going to see and experience. And although the casket was not open, the mere sight of a box with a flag draped over it and men in uniforms guarding the casket can be quite overwhelming for an adult, much less little children. The family asked if I could explain to these two young girls that their sweet father was with Jesus. So, inside the funeral home I sat down on the floor and told the girls a story about what they would see, about how much their father was loved, and that it was okay to be sad and to cry. I told them that even though their father's body was inside that box, that who he was, his laughter and the things that made him smile were up in heaven. I brought in two honor guard members and had them touch their badges and hold their hands. They went into that chapel with a smile on their faces but they left with tears in their eyes. Who could blame them? It was hard to fathom.
The next day, the day of the funeral, I went to do one last check of the family as they waited in the parlor of the church. It's customary to bring the family in last, after everyone has been seated and so they wait in a private room until they are summoned. The two little girls came up to me to show me their new stuffed animals. And as I knelt to the floor the youngest one, who was all but 5 years old, started to cry. I sat on the floor as she grabbed hold of me and I just held her and whispered in her ear. For several minutes I told her how much she was loved and she told me how much she missed her daddy. And I told her that every time she missed her daddy to hug that little stuffed animal and pretend that he was hugging her back. I told her that her daddy would always be with her in her heart and that she could talk to him whenever she wanted by just saying a prayer. It was all I knew to say and for a moment I felt lost. These words weren't good enough but she pulled away and smiled a brief smile and I knew that she understood way more than I was giving her credit for.
It's tough to explain to a child that sometimes life is too short. In a perfect world, we wouldn't have to try. In a perfect world, her father would be here today. In a perfect world, I would never have to hold the tears of a grieving child in the palm of my hands. But it is an incredibly imperfect world and life is short. The lesson to be learned is that we should never take our moments here on earth for granted. We should love our loved ones with all of our might. We should take the opportunities that are given to us. We should never take what has been given to us for granted. In this terrible tragedy, I am glad that I was once again reminded of this lesson.