A chaplain’s role on a ride-along: Assisting at a suicide call

A police chaplain and officers respond to a call from a woman who suspected her son had killed himself

By Archer Leupp

Although I’ve been a police chaplain for more than 15 years, I recently had my first ride-along with my newest agency, the Oconto County Sheriff’s Office (OCSO). That day, I rode with an officer I knew from another agency and was looking forward to catching up with him and getting the scoop on the OCSO. As soon as I got out of my car he said, “Good. You’re here early. Hop in, we’ve got a call – a suspected suicide.”

We sped away and for the next 20 minutes with lights and sirens going we didn’t even get to have the normal, “So, how are you? What have you been up to?” chat. We were responding to a call from a woman who suspected that one of her sons had gone into the woods behind the home they’re building and killed himself.

When we arrived, we joined another deputy already on the scene. I stayed with the mother and her oldest son while the two deputies went into the woods to check things out. She said she knew her son had a ladder and some new rope, and that he had access to a couple of guns.

After about 15 minutes, the deputies returned and confirmed what the mother suspected to be true. Her son had apparently hanged himself in the woods. For the next six hours, I stayed with the family as more family members and deputies arrived. All the while, the family was experiencing waves of grief as they recounted what they knew and suspected had happened with the arrival of each new family member.

I was mostly silent, just hanging out with them in their home. Touching one on the shoulder here and there. Asking a question now and then. I filled them in on what the officers were doing, what would happen next, that the medical examiner was on her way and what the funeral home would do. I explained that the firefighters were coming to help carry their son out of the woods so the funeral home could transport him where he needed to go. I sat with them as the medical examiner, funeral director and officers asked questions.

Then there were discussions about what the young man had been like, what he had experienced and struggled with over the years. They reminisced about funny things that he did, said and enjoyed, their laughter mixed with grief.

The father turned on the gas fireplace as the air began to cool. I asked about when each person saw their loved one last. How did he look? What was he wearing? How did he sound? What did his hair look like? Most of them had last seen him in the morning when his hair was messy. One of them recalled seeing only the back of his head as he rolled over in bed, said what he had to say, then went back to sleep. “Typical,” someone said. Laughter.

I asked those questions because a couple of family members were adamant they wanted to see him before the funeral home took him away. But I knew that if they did take a look, what they saw in that tragic moment would overwrite whatever other images of him they had in their memories. I let them in on the strategy of my questions later and asked them to reconsider their desire to see him. They changed their minds.

Silence. Tears. Then more fun memories and laughter. Soon, the older brother’s girlfriend left, then the older son. After firefighters helped officers retrieve the body, they too left. The medical examiner and funeral home folks left. Finally, it was time for me and the deputies to leave too. The parents would then be by themselves to try to make sense of the tragedy. I got hugs from the grieving father and mother. I gave them my card in case they wanted to chat again later and again expressed my condolences.

We stopped afterward for coffee and to “hotwash” the event and unpack what we had just experienced. It took only about 10 minutes for the responders to catch their breath then go their separate ways, alone with their own thoughts, back to their assigned areas of the county to wait for the next call.

About the author

Archer Leupp is formerly a pastor for 24 years and is now a full-time, fully supported LE Chaplain who serves five agencies in NE Wisconsin. He’s served as a LE chaplain for over 15 years and is currently a master-level credentialed chaplain and the Wisconsin State Rep for the International Conference of Police Chaplains, staff member of Converge Great Lakes (formerly Baptist General Conference Great Lakes), husband, father and proud grandpa (Papa).

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