James Michael Sauter 1984-2013
On Friday, March 29th around 7:25 a.m., I picked up my cell phone and saw that I had missed a call from someone I rarely ever speak with over the phone. When I checked my voice mail, I heard, “Scott, please call Liz as soon as possible.” I knew then that something was horribly wrong. I immediately called Liz. I could hardly understand her at first, but I didn’t really need to. I guessed what had happened. Just three hours prior to our call, she had received word that her husband James, an Illinois State Trooper, had been killed in the line of duty.
After a few minutes, Liz was able to speak more clearly. She began to tell me how much James loved me and how much he had respected me over the years. I had had the honor, joy, and privilege of serving as James’s, (I always called him Jimmy) youth pastor from the time he was in the seventh grade all the way through high school when he graduated. The relationship I earned with Jimmy over the years was great, and it’s a relationship for which I will always be grateful to God. We kept in regular contact during his college years, and I clearly remember when he called me with enthusiasm and excitement after being accepted into the Illinois State Police Academy. That same enthusiasm and excitement continued all the way through the Academy when he graduated with honors. I had a front row seat at his wedding - he had asked me to marry him and Liz on October 10, 2010 (10/10/10). As a matter of fact, I had just spoken to him over the phone a few weeks ago when he called me “just to talk.” Jimmy was one of “my kids” and that morning I was told that one of my kids had died.
After hanging up with Liz, I lost it emotionally. I was in total shock and I didn’t want to believe what Liz had just told me. Reality didn’t set in until I got home that morning and started watching the Chicago news online. Sure enough, there was Jimmy’s picture and all the details as to how he passed away. Later that day, I was asked to speak at Jimmy’s funeral. Almost immediately I began asking myself and God, “What in the world am I going to say?” What was I going to do when I saw Liz and Jimmy’s parents face for the first time? How was I going to comfort and encourage them when I was hurting in such a bad way? How was I going to keep my composure and my emotions under control?
It was ironic that the day before I received the phone call, Dr. Corsini had been talking about emotions. The following days proved to be some of the hardest, for me and so many others, emotionally. Obviously, all of us who loved Jimmy experienced grief and sadness, and it was during those times that I sat there wondering - what would I say as a professional counselor to the grieving wife, parent, brother, or friend? At the same time, I was grieving, too – what was I hoping someone would say to me? I came to understand quickly that you can only say “I’m sorry” so many times to someone sitting there and responding with “thank you” over and over again. Don’t get me wrong - well-wishers have legitimate, sincere, and genuine intentions, but at the end of the day, what can you really say?
When it comes to emotions, I am encountering almost all of them as I struggle to deal with Jimmy’s death. Of course, anger played a huge part then (and still does today) mostly because Jimmy’s death was so unnecessary and avoidable. Jimmy did everything right the night he was killed; it was the reckless and negligent behavior of another human being that cut Jimmy’s life way too short. Jimmy’s father and younger brother also experienced a lot of anger. They, along with the rest of us, want justice to be done (whatever that might look like) and they want this guy to be held accountable for his actions. I pose the question again - what in the world do you say to a grieving father or brother who is angry?
Along with sadness, grief, and anger, we also encountered joy and happiness. You see, there was so much about Jimmy’s life that we could celebrate: the love that he had for his Lord and Savior, the joy that he had in serving other people, and the difference that he was making in the lives of so many on a daily basis. Many of the former students from the youth group I led attended the viewing and the funeral. Those events gave us the chance to reconnect for a bit and celebrate Jimmy – it was beautiful! We cried together, we laughed together, and we remembered together. It was good to see those who were grieving and sad and angry also smile and laugh throughout the few days that I was there. Emotions are very powerful and they allow us to see glimpses inside the hearts and minds of individuals.
Jimmy’s death comes as a personal loss to me and I am reminded that thousands of people experience such losses on a daily basis. Death is a guarantee and cannot be predicted. For many of us, the day will come when a spouse, a parent, a sibling, or a friend walks into your office and begins telling you about the loss of the “Jimmy” in his or her life, and all the emotions that they are experiencing. What in the world will you say or do?