When four Green Berets recently lost their lives in an ambush in Niger, it was your job to make calls of condolences.
“I felt very, very badly about that; I always feel bad. The toughest calls I have to make are the calls where this happens,” you said nearly two weeks later, explaining you had written letters and planned to ring their families soon.
When you did call, the widow of Sgt. La David T. Johnson claimed that you were less than sympathetic.
As a pastor of a church in a military community, I know how hard those calls can be. Whether the claims are true, it pains me to see this issue become political fodder.
I thought I would share a few things I’ve learned, sometimes the hard way, from working with families in their grief.
1. People won’t remember what you say, only how you make them feel.
You hold the most powerful position in the world, so the fact that you thought of them to make a call will mean far more than the substance of what you say. In fact, it’s best to swallow your pride and admit that you don’t know what to say.
“I can’t even imagine how you feel,” would be a good place to start. Unless we’ve been there, as a fellow service member or a family member who lost a loved one in action, we can’t.
Just acknowledge and validate their pain and their sacrifice. Nothing you can say will make it go away.
2. It’s not about you.
These calls are not supposed to be about photo-ops or news releases or poll numbers. They are private calls focused on listening to the family and letting them know that the nation appreciates their loved one’s service.
You were right to refuse to release a transcript of the calls you made. This should be between you and them. They don’t need grandstanding. They don’t need a politician to become their hero. They already have a hero for their family — one who has given his life in service of this country.
When Rep. Frederica S. Wilson (D-Fla.) criticized your handling of the call to Myeshia Johnson, your response turned this into a political issue. The situation and the subsequent coverage is not fair to the Johnson family or other Gold Star families who deserve better from the leaders who send their loved ones into harm’s way.
3. Let the family members do most of the talking.
Don’t think you can provide satisfactory answers about why this happened. Instead, ask them to tell you a few stories about the deceased service member and sit back and listen. Your goal should be to get to know that person, if only for a moment. The family wants empathy, not platitudes.
Remember that when Jesus went to the tomb of Lazarus, even though he knew that he was going to bring the dead man back to life, he still mourned with the family. As a child, I loved the verse that expressed his sorrow because it was easy to memorize. As an adult, I love it because it shows the heart of a great leader, captured so powerfully in the shortest verse in the Bible:
Rather than explanations or proclamations of revenge, families just want to be assured of one thing. They need to know that the nation weeps with them, Mr. President. And they need to know those tears are real.
A pastor in Virginia
Randy Singer is a minister and attorney in Virginia Beach He can be reached at his website at www.randysinger.net.