Volunteers help York County coroner comfort families amid loss

The York County Coroner’s Office staff and the CARE team annual Remembrance Tree is decorated with ornaments in 2015.
The York County Coroner’s Office staff and the CARE team annual Remembrance Tree is decorated with ornaments in 2015. Herald file photo

There’s a prayer Steve Adams says each time he gets a particular phone call.

It’s become somewhat of a routine over the last five years: After getting the call, he grabs a bag that holds a clean shirt, a notebook and some brochures. He gets in his car and heads to the address that was given to him.

Sometime during that, he prays. “Lord, prepare me for whatever comes, and just give me the right words to say and know when not to speak.”

What comes next is anything but routine, though.

Adams is preparing to talk to someone who’s just found out that their parent, child, sibling or other relative has died. As a volunteer with the York County Coroner’s Office CARE Team, Adams accompanies the coroner to make death notifications.

The coroner, who is involved with the death investigation, typically has to leave after the notification and either continue investigating or go to another call. The shock and grief can be tremendous, especially if the person is alone when he or she gets the news, according to York County Coroner Sabrina Gast.

That’s why Gast in 2011 started the CARE Team, which is an acronym for Connecting, Advocating and Responding with Empathy. The team is made up of trained volunteers who accompany coroners to deliver the tragic news and stay with family members until their support system can arrive.

When York County’s team began in 2011, Richland County was the only other county in the state with a similar program, and Gast said she modeled York County’s from that one.

“We found we were having a lot of families that didn’t have friends or neighbors close by,” Gast said. “The last thing we want to do is go tell someone their loved one has died and then have to leave them to go to another call without someone close by.”

‘That next phase in life’

In early 2011, Adams saw an article about the new team, which was seeking volunteers.

“For me personally, as my kids were getting older and getting to be more self-sufficient and heading off to college, I was looking for that next phase in life,” said Adams, now 54. “I wanted to help others.”

All volunteers have to go through a training that covers the coroner’s responsibilities, the different types of cases the agency responds to and how the CARE team members can assist families.

Sometimes, just sitting and listening can be the biggest comfort for someone who’s just lost a loved one, as Adams found out in his first call. It was at the hospital, where a man had taken his wife after she got sick.

“She had died and he was there at the hospital by himself,” Adams recalled. “I was called in and sat with this gentleman until we could get his support system.” That took several hours.

“We were able to sit together, just the two of us,” he said. “Folks really like to share, especially if it’s a spouse and they’ve been married. They enjoy getting to talk and reminisce about their loved one.”

Adams has responded with coroners to a variety of calls in the last five years: natural deaths, overdoses, car crashes, homicides, suicides and other types of accidents. He said the worst ones involve a parent whose child just died or a young child whose parent just died.

“Every case has been different and unique in some way,” he said. “Most of the time, the folks are just in shock. They’re gonna remember that somebody was there. They may not remember my name or who I was ... but they’ll say thank you for being there.”

Living out faith

While the CARE Team’s primary responsibility is immediately after someone has learned of a loved one’s death, team members also make follow-up phone calls a few weeks later.

“Folks are very appreciative of those phone calls,” Adams said. “Some of my longer extended calls have been with spouses when they’ve been married for decades. They love to talk about their spouse and what their life was like, what York County was like 50 or 60 years ago.”

They have other events during the year to help families continue healing. In the springtime, the CARE Team and Gast’s office host a candlelight vigil in memory of York County homicide victims. During the Christmas holiday season, which can be especially painful after the death of a loved one, they hold an open house with a “Remembrance Tree.”

People are encouraged to bring an ornament that symbolizes a loved one who died in York County and hang it on the tree in the lobby of the coroner’s office.

“They get to meet their families again,” Gast said of CARE Team volunteers. “It’s nice for us to be able to see them again and check on them and see how they’re doing.”

The team is composed of about 10 volunteers, most of whom have full-time jobs, Gast said. That often helps.

“They’re making phone calls in the evenings when the families are at home by themselves,” she said.

For Adams, an engineer at the Catawba Nuclear Station, comforting people in a time of sorrow and sadness is a way to live out his faith.

“It’s not so much connected to my vocation, but it’s connected to my religious faith,” he said. “If you’re gonna say you love God, then you have to show that to those who God created.”

Adams said the question most people have after a loved one’s death is, “What do I do next?” Sometimes it’s, “Why did God allow this to happen?”

Team members are trained to remember that not everyone is religious and must be careful if a conversation heads in that direction, Gast said.

“That is not the time to get into the theological discussion of why do bad things happen,” Adams said. “We just kind of put our arm around them, hold their hand and say, ‘I am so sorry this has happened to you. My heart just grieves and aches with you.’”

Teddy Kulmala: 803-329-4082, @teddy_kulmala

Sixth annual Remembrance Tree

The York County Coroner’s Office staff and CARE Team will host an open house to light the sixth annual Remembrance Tree. Families who have lost a loved one are invited to bring an ornament to place on the tree to honor the memory of a loved one.

The open house will be Dec. 6 from 2 to 4 p.m. However, families can bring ornaments at any time during office hours starting Nov. 28. For more information, call 803-909-8400.