As a hospital chaplain, Sue Wintz knows the meaning of the scriptural admonition foretelling the “rain falling on the just and the unjust,” but somehow she’d always hoped she’d carried a good umbrella.
But there was no protection from the torrent of grief in the announcement brought by Phoenix police on December 2, 2003 that Sue’s 17-year-old daughter, Sarah Wintz, was killed in a car accident.
Now over a year later, Sue talked to me about the ways in which she and her minister husband, Mike, have learned to better align their professional roles with the reality of the lessons learned from losing a child.
In the days and weeks after the accident, Sue admits that they “didn’t sleep or eat; we felt like we were in a fog. I had absolutely no idea how deep and dark the hole of parental grief would be.” Yet despite the fog, the Wintz family knew that their “feelings were normal and okay.”
Thinking from her “professional perspective” on grief, Sue readily admits, “As professionals, we just don’t get it sometimes. A day after the accident, I was met with the comment ‘you aren’t reacting very professionally.'”
There are those who told the Wintzes that their grief should be ‘over’ in a matter of months and they stopped mentioning Sarah by name. Incredulously, Sue had a colleague remind her that “the ‘honeymoon year’ is over, so you should move on.”
Sue described these people as being “toxic.” Grieving parents become very adept at recognizing the ones who will be helpful “and the ones who should be avoided.”
Sue has begun to find some of her former confidence. “I was a good chaplain before my daughter’s death, but I’ve learned some things that did and didn’t help.” Twenty-five days after Sarah’s death, Sue listed those things in her journal. And now, she’s asked me to share parts of that list with my readers.
Helped: People who checked on us without an agenda and took care of details like answering our phone, keeping lists of what people brought, cleaning our house and making sure our cars were running well.
Didn’t help: Trying to micro-manage aspects of our grief by telling me when I needed to eat and rest or take anxiety medications.
Helped: Food brought every other day, beginning the second week of the accident. Didn’t help: So much food all at once.
Helped: People telling me, “My child died too. I’m here for you.” Didn’t help: People claiming to know how I feel because their father/friend/dog died.
Helped: The hundreds of people who came to the service and our amazing son who put together the slide show of Sarah’s life. Didn’t help: Giving me advice on when I needed – or didn’t need – to go through Sarah’s room and things.
Helped: Carolers and Secret Santa gifts. Sarah loved Christmas.
Didn’t help: Telling me I needed to realize that there are also “others having a bad time in their lives right now.”
Helped: The people who listened and never told us to stop crying. Didn’t help: Questions asking us who was at fault in the accident.
Helped: Taking me out to lunch and back into the world.
Didn’t help: Asking when we’re going to get our “lives and work back to normal.”
Helped: All the wonderful donations to the memorial scholarship fund, the live plants reminding us of Sarah and flowers brought to the site of the accident.
Sue finds a lasting lesson in Thomas Attig’s writing about grief. Attig writes about how relationships with loved ones change after their death. Sue adds, “The truth is, it doesn’t end; the relationship becomes transformed. I knew the concept before Sarah’s death but now it really hits home.”