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The impact of suicide on Placer County first responders, chaplains

By: Tricia Caspers of the Auburn Journal
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Out of the Darkness Walks

This Sunday local residents will participate in the Out of the Darkness Walks campaign to raise funding and awareness about suicide prevention.

When: 9 a.m., Saturday, Oct. 8

Where: Railhead Park, 175 Pacific Ave.

Info: visit Afsp.donordrive.com, call 530-368-3404 or email

for more information. 

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Placer County Law Enforcement Chaplains

For more information about Placer County Chaplains or to make a donation, visit Placerchaplains.com

When someone commits suicide, it’s not only a tragedy for the friends and family, it also takes a toll on law enforcement, paramedics, firefighters and chaplains whose job it is to respond to those calls day in and day out.

“It can be very difficult on first responders to watch families in crisis when they learn that a loved one has passed,” said Sgt. Chris Forman with Auburn Police Department.

When police officers arrive at a scene they’re always hopeful that they will have the opportunity to interact with the person in distress, he said, and develop a way to help them.

“Unfortunately, sometimes all we can do is begin an investigation.”

Sometimes, just as it remains with the loved ones, the impact of an incident never truly goes away, he said.

Chaplains and tears

After the family is stable, many first responders rely on Placer County Law Enforcement Chaplaincy, a nonprofit organization, for guidance and support.

James Milne of Newcastle is one of 55 Placer County chaplains serving the area between Roseville and Truckee whose mission it is to serve the needs of law enforcement and first responders as well as those of families.

For Milne, sometimes that means the victims – he refers to the grieving loved ones as victims – soak his shirt with tears until they are stable, and then he de-briefs with a group of law enforcement officers or sits one-on-one in a car with an officer while he or she talks through the incident.

After responding to so many incidents, the deaths become less shocking, Milne said.

“The family is never routine,” he said. “You feel so helpless to try and help the family.”

Sometimes all they can do is offer resources and treat people nicely.

There are other times when Milne is side-by-side with officers trying to talk people out of committing suicide.

The chaplains attend training to be able to talk to suicidal people and their families.

“People have a tendency to categorize suicide as the coward’s way out,” he said. “It’s a lot more complicated.”

Often, when Milne talks to someone who’s suicidal he or she hasn’t slept for days.

“That alone right there is a train wreck,” he said. “Then add emotional or physical pain or mental illness. The brain can’t operate.”

Being called to the work

Healthy people aren’t able to put themselves in the shoes of someone who’s suicidal, he said.

“They’re not in the logical world.”

Victims often ask Milne if their loved one will go to heaven or hell. He always gives the same answer.

“I tell them, ‘I’m not God, and neither are you,’” he said. “There’s only one that can judge what’s in the heart, and we’re gonna leave it with him.”

A law enforcement chaplain needs to be called to the work, Milne said.

“If you’re not called, it will eat you up,” he said. “It will haunt you.”

Chaplains mentor each other and rely on each other when the work is overwhelming. They stay in close contact with each other’s partners so that the spouse is comfortable calling the mentor when the strain is too much.

The wife of another chaplain called Milne one evening.

“She said, ‘he’s eating an entire carton of ice cream,’” he said. “I said, ‘Do you have any more? I’ll be right over.’”

Sometimes, for first responders and chaplains, the emotion doesn’t hit right away. They wrap up one incident and they’re immediately on to the next with little time to process the impact.

The pain might blindside them on an idle Sunday morning, he said. That’s where they have to be careful.

Sometimes, though, there are happy endings.

Heartbreaking compassion

One day, Milne was talking a man out of jumping from the Foresthill Bridge. A year later, Milne was in the American River, baptizing that same man below that same bridge.

Milne is also moved by the compassion and dignity he regularly sees law enforcement offer to grieving families.

“I wish the world could see law enforcement through my eyes,” he said. “It brings tears to my eyes … . It would make your heart break.”

Reach reporter Tricia Caspers at triciar@goldcountrymedia.com