Police chaplains: Providing a ministry of presence in times of tragedy

How four Senior Police Chaplains helped to guide four grieving families through the Eastern Freeway tragedy.

As afternoon became evening on 22 April, on-call Senior Police Chaplain Drew Mellor walked in his front door, portable police radio in hand.

He was about to switch off, when the crackle of the radio broadcast interjected.

Receiving the news

“I was probably about 15 seconds away from turning it off when the call came over that there were multiple fatalities of members,” he recalled.

His phone rang a short time later. It was a member of Victoria Police Welfare confirming that Victoria Police had just experienced its greatest loss of life in a single incident in its history.

The magnitude of the tragedy, four members deceased, following a routine traffic stop on the Eastern Freeway in Kew, necessitated a large and coordinated pastoral and welfare response.

Drew called fellow Senior Chaplain, Dave Thompson and Team Leader, Jim Jung to engage what would be a complex and multi-faceted plan to help the families and the organisation process what had transpired and find a path to healing.

“When we discovered there were four deaths, we also stood up our retired Senior Chaplain Jim Pilmer.

Because we had now four different families to attend, we stood up all four of those senior chaplains to be able to be part of the notification teams,” Jim Jung said.

Each of the four Senior Chaplains were deployed initially to the workplaces of the four officers – Senior Constable Lynette Taylor, Senior Constable Kevin King, Constable Glen Humphris and Constable Josh Prestney – to provide support for the colleagues who had headed instinctively to the one place they knew others would congregate in shocked solidarity.

"There were four separate families, four locations, but also there were multiple work units.

"On the night when we were called, because it sometimes takes a little while to find out where the members involved live and who is the next of kin, as chaplains our first point of call was to the work units,” Jim said.

Member solidarity

They headed to all ends of metropolitan Melbourne, from Nunawading to Brunswick and Booroondara, where hundreds of members gathered to hear officially what they had already discovered unofficially through the police grapevine.

“When I turned up to my designated workplace, there were about 50 people there, sitting in the mess room and the changerooms and there they were all sitting there in a state of bewilderment,” Jim said.

Together with the station’s Senior Sergeant, he addressed the troops.

The Senior Sergeant provided some basic details confirming who had died and what had happened, Jim then began to talk about the services that were available to the members and the need for them to support and lean on one another.

“You are really just there acknowledging the grief, acknowledging that something tragic has happened and stressing the need to stick together,” Jim said.

Family support

From addressing the shared grief of the members’ colleagues, the chaplains’ attention quickly refocused on the families and loved ones of the members.

“Going to the families, you now move from a corporate environment, with a large group of people who have had a close work relationship with the deceased, to the family or loved one of someone who hasn’t come home,” Jim said.

“These are intimate family members, these are the ones who, when they retire and no one else is ringing them and talking to them, these are the people they will grow old with and so dreams and aspirations and thoughts of the future… they now get a knock on the door…

“By the time we got to most of the families, they had presumed their loved one was one of the four.

“They at least had a premonition that they were well and truly overdue to come home and the minute they saw who was knocking on the door, they knew immediately before we even said anything that something terrible had happened."

In that moment, Jim describes the job of a chaplain as providing, ‘a ministry of presence’.

“There’s often nothing you can say, there’s no training or profound words you can use to cause that to be any different, you are really just there, you are present, you handle each of those moments as it presents itself to you and none of them are easy, they’re all different,” he said.

That ‘ministry of presence’ remained throughout the family’s hardest days, as they came to grips with what happened and prepared to say goodbye to their loved one.

“I focused on the family that I was with, as I have done for 35 years, and tried to be of some help,” said Drew Mellor.

By early that evening and into the night, the world outside the police force was starting to digest the tragic chain of events that led to the deaths of four police officers, and beginning to realise the enormous impact it was having on the community.

The media storm

As Chief Commissioner Graham Ashton addressed the media at the scene of the crash, all four senior chaplains were with the families of the deceased members.

“We’re there as long as we need to be there, to know that they’re safe, that they’re able to cope with what they’ve been told, then generally we’re there each day helping them through the process of now coordinating the funeral,” Jim said.

“I would always tell the family that I will contact you tomorrow, but you can contact me anytime,” said Drew.

A key role for chaplains after a member passes is to help their family to prepare for what’s next, in the minutes, hours and days ahead.

“One of the amazing privileges we have as chaplains is that quite immediately we become part of that intimate inner circle of a family going through grief and all of a sudden we are part of that inner sanctum, dealing with things like the media storm that’s going to erupt around them.”

The ‘media storm’ did arrive, and with it an outpouring of emotion, gratitude and sympathy for the fallen officers and the sacrifice they had made.

United in grief

Blue and white balloons and ribbons in sets of four were tied on letterboxes and fences, police stations were overwhelmed by flowers and cards from their communities and buildings across Melbourne’s CBD lit up blue, as a city shared in the force’s grief.

That expression of shared grief helped to carry the families of the members in the initial stages of their grief.

“The families began to hear of the sense of grief and the flowers that were being delivered, the blue lights, so they were expressing significant appreciation.

It was comforting to them that they knew the sacrifice that had been made by their loved ones was being felt by others,” Drew said.

“Something very special was arranged, where one of the families was able to see the blue lights of the city from a vantage point.

They got to see a very central part of Melbourne that was all lit up in blue. They were very comforted by that.”

Challenging times

While the community found many ways to honour the memory of the fallen members, for the four families, their one formal opportunity to pay their respects and say goodbye was compromised, not only by the public exposure of their loss, but by the enforced restrictions on funerals put in place to protect large groups of people from contracting the COVID-19 infection.

“That only ten people could come to a funeral, created incredible angst among the families.

"They began to think about how they were going to physically manage to do this, which just became an added pressure that we had to help walk them through,” Jim said.

Over four emotional days, the four officers were laid to rest in funerals attended by a very small core of their closest loved ones.

The services were each streamed to the countless family members, friends and colleagues who couldn’t physically be there.

Continued support

“We were with these families on a fairly regular basis for as much as ten days leading up to the funerals. Once the funerals are over, we still remain connected to the them, but we tell them that from now other services are going to begin to engage with them in a way that we now need to begin to fade into the background,” Jim said.

“The beauty of the TPAV resources and the police resources is that once a loved one has been buried and the recovery begins, we hand over to these other support services.”

Dave Thompson said in the aftermath of Victoria Police’s worst every tragedy, he saw the best of the organisation.

“The death of a police officer is a very moving experience, it’s extremely intense and sometimes people can feel isolated from that, but in this experience it wasn’t the case, everybody was well involved and Victoria Police was wonderful at all levels with care and respect,” he said.

“They (the families) felt very much embraced by Victoria Police.

“A lot of shoulders were involved in helping to carry the families through this experience, not just chaplains.”

Read more about our Police Chaplains: Jim Jung talks about being a Father and a Dad to those in blue, on page 23 of your August 2020 Journal.