Enquirer Herald

York County coroner's Care Team helps families cope after tragedy

Greg Cook knows what it's like to hear the knock at the door, then the news.

It happened twice - when his sister was killed in a car accident and when his daughter died in an accident.

Cook was alone and remembers wishing someone had been there to help pull him out of his state of shock.

That's why he volunteered to offer that kind of help to others.

Cook is one of 30 members of York County Coroner Sabrina Gast's new Care Team.

Their job is to go with Gast or one of her deputy coroners when they notify family and friends of a loved one's death.

The Care volunteer is there to help with anything the person needs, by contacting friends and family, making arrangements or just providing a shoulder to cry on.

"Your mind's going to go totally blank when you hear those words," Cook said. "I'm hoping to fill the void that's going to hit families ... And just get the support chain started for them."

The program is untested. Gast said she knows of only one other like it in South Carolina. She believes it could help families better cope with losing a loved one.

In April, her office accepted applications for the Care Team. After vetting the candidates, 30 were chosen for three days of training.

On Monday, she welcomed the team with a celebration at her office.

"It's very rare that you are able to see such a large group of volunteers for just an idea," she told them. "Thank you from the bottom of my heart. This is something I've wanted to do for a very long time."

As coroner, Gast's office investigates each death in the county to determine the medical and legal cause.

In the case of a homicide, the solicitor's office provides a victim's advocate to help families. But when someone dies of natural causes or in an accident, a friend or relative often receives the news and is left to deal with it.

It's especially hard, too, when someone is alone.

"We have a lot of families not from here," Gast said. And "a lot of people don't know their neighbors. We don't want to leave them without somebody there."

Care Team members aren't grief counselors. Families in shock are often too distraught to make calls or funeral arrangements.

The volunteers "are going to be there to help them think of what to do next ... to kind of hold their hand," Gast said.

Joyce Jackson signed up to volunteer after her neighbor's son was killed in a car accident while driving to a friend's house after school.

"I just thought, 'What if that was my child?' " she said. "I realized there was a need. It made me want to help."

It was an accident in May that Gast said made her want to assemble the Care Team as soon as possible.

After a man was killed in the accident, Gast arrived at the scene to find members of his family had gotten there first. They were in shock and had many questions.

"I can't imagine what that family was going through," she said.

Gast couldn't help them, though. She had to interview authorities and tend to the body.

"I felt like I was leaving the family hanging," she said. "That was the pivotal moment. I felt like I needed to hurry and get this thing going."