On Oct. 19, 2008, at 6 in the morning, the answering machine in Jack McPeck’s bedroom awakened him and his wife, Bonnie, with this ominous message: “I’m a police chaplain, and I am at your front door, please come out.”
Their 22-year-old son, Zachary, had died accidentally in his apartment.
“Losing a child is literally the worst nightmare a parent can ever have,” McPeck said.
Fortunately, through a friend who works at a Spokane hospital, McPeck’s family learned about the Spokane chapter of The Compassionate Friends, a self-help organization for bereaved families who have experienced the death of a child of any age, from any cause.
McPeck, a self-described introvert who works in research and development for Itron in Liberty Lake, has stepped into an extrovert’s role doing outreach for the Spokane chapter of The Compassionate Friends.
One recent Thursday, he handed out information about the group at the International Conference of Police Chaplains at the DoubleTree Hotel in downtown Spokane.
His message for the chaplains and first responders? When you tell parents the news no parent ever wants to hear, leave them with material from The Compassionate Friends. They won’t be able to really listen to the information, because when they hear their child is dead, they go into shock.
But if the parents find the material in a few weeks or a few months, it will lead them to other parents living in a similar hell, in need of similar healing.
Beth Wilson, a chaplain with the Spokane Police Department, and the Rev. L. George Abrams, a Cheney Methodist minister who is sent out to disasters throughout the country, stopped by The Compassionate Friends booth.
Neither had heard much about the group, but each eagerly read through the literature.
“We walk in at their darkest moment,” Wilson said of the parents she meets. “If I could leave this for them to see later, it would be helpful.”
Abrams said the material would be especially useful when grown children take their own lives.
“We get suicides far too often,” Abrams said.
At their meetings, bereaved parents talk about the unspeakable. “There’s dark humor and cursing, and all that is OK,” McPeck said.
They talk about the friends who sometimes distance themselves, as if having a child die is contagious. They talk about the judgment others have when a grown child dies while impaired or doing something stupid.
They say their children’s names aloud, because most others don’t anymore. And they share stories of their children.
McPeck, who wore his son’s photo on a button pinned to his shirt, prefers to talk about how Zachary lived, rather than share the details of his death.
So he will tell you that Zachary went to Spokane Valley schools: Adams, Evergreen, Central Valley. He was the middle child, bracketed by two sisters. He was a joker. He still called his parents mommy and daddy. He was a hugger. The family misses those Zachary hugs most of all.
McPeck spent two full days volunteering at the conference, handing out information to chaplains and first responders, thereby potentially reaching hundreds of bereaved parents down the road. He’s become a grief activist, in Zachary’s honor.
Still, he said: “I’m not to the point that I can say this made me a better person. I may never get there. A child is not supposed to die before a parent.”