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ARLINGTON — In his nine years as a volunteer chaplain, Steve Schertzinger has learned well how to tell someone their loved one isn’t coming home.
But nothing prepared him for the devastation of the mudslide on Saturday that has left so many families in doubt and desperate for news.
“In a death notification, I know what to do,” Schertzinger said. “These people are in limbo.”
He and the other volunteer chaplains are in charge of notifying immediate family members that someone has died in the mudslide. He expected that work to begin as soon as Tuesday afternoon as searchers discovered more bodies.
The notifications will be done in person, though it’s been difficult to find immediate family members for some of the victims.
Many, but not all of the relatives of the missing, have been gathering at the Red Cross shelter at Post Middle School in Arlington.
He said the mood is somber and quiet, with families gathered together in clusters. Rumors fly fast about who may have been found in the debris.
“Most of them, I think, would just like to know they found the body of my loved one so they can begin to move on,” said Schertzinger, a chaplain with the Marysville police and fire departments.
They usually receive three updates a day from authorities and the chaplains often don’t know much more than they do.
“It’s always before any news is announced to the press,” he said. “The families always get the first information.”
But it’s never enough information and that’s what the families want most. Some have flown in from Hawaii, California, Iowa and elsewhere.
“Most have a place to go, but they don’t want to go,” Schertzinger said. “They want to stay close.”
Schertzinger, who turned 63 on Monday and spent most of his birthday at the shelter, waits with them, perhaps resting his hand on their shoulder. Perhaps asking how they’ve slept.
He doesn’t make rookie mistakes like talking about people in the past tense or assuring someone he knows how they feel. Mostly, he’s learned to be quiet and just be with them.
There are a few children among the waiting families, including a 4-year-old boy who was rescued.
“It’s really cute to have him there, but there are still family members who are missing,” he said.
He expects that when chaplains begin notifying relatives about deaths, they will drive to wherever they are staying. If the relatives have spent a lot of time at the shelter, a chaplain they have seen often there will be the one to break the bad news.
“You may have to do more than one death notification to the same family,” Schertzinger said. “Our intention is to send the same chaplain back to that family should that arise.”
Schertzinger said he doesn’t tell relatives that someone has died.
He asks them to sit down and he tells them he is sad to report that their loved one – a wife, a husband, a parent, a child — is not coming home.