What Acts of Kindness Can YOU Offer Those Who Mourn?

By Janice Hall Heck with Chaplain Bob Ossler

Who answers the questions that erupt after an incomprehensible tragedy? “Where is God?” “Why me?” Why did this happen?” One answer is chaplains. Chaplains of all faiths serve on the front lines of critical incidents as first responders in crises caused by terrorist attacks, natural disasters, fires, and other emergencies. While remaining true to their faith, chaplains commit to offering compassionate care to anyone in need, regardless of religious preference.

Chaplains and religious leaders counsel people who grieve, but close friends can also fulfill this role. Other friends may offer temporary comfort, but long-term, trusted friends make the difference between emotional survival and clinical depression. What you say is critical to a person who suffers. This excerpt from Triumph Over Terror, chronicling Chaplain Bob Ossler’s experiences at Ground Zero on The Pile after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, offers ways you can support those struggling with trauma and loss in the short and long term.

Sit and wait. When a grieving person cannot bear comfort, you must sit and wait, just as Job’s friends sat with him and waited seven days, saying nothing, before speaking to him about his suffering. (Job 1:13) When Job managed to speak, he lamented: “If only my anguish could be weighed and all my misery be placed on the scales! It would surely outweigh the sand of the seas. . . .”(Job 6:2-3) “My eyes will never see happiness again.” (Job 7:7)

Chaplain Bob Ossler in Baton Rouge after police shootings offering comfort and prayer for brokenhearted people.

Chaplain Bob Ossler in Baton Rouge after police shootings offering comfort and prayer for brokenhearted people.

Listen from the heart. Our first charge is to understand that grieving is complex and to listen carefully when the grieving person speaks. The grieving person may repeat the same stories over and over, or describe in detail the sequence of the illness, or the accident, or murder, or actions causing the death. It’s normal for these stories to echo constantly through the griever’s mind.

Give the gift of time. Understand that the person who mourns cannot respond in normal ways. Extreme mood swings, confusion, and sudden fits of crying are normal. And remember, they will never be the same person they were before their loved one’s death.

Respect the grieving person’s right for privacy. Let them grieve in the manner they choose, but do not forget them. Even though they may seem to reject it, they still need your comfort and compassion. Invite them to participate in your social events. Take them to lunch. Drop by to see how they’re faring.

Offer prayers for comfort. Some may be ready for prayer; others may not be. Be sensitive. The pain of grieving often blocks a person from hearing words of comfort. Be patient. Pray silently when the grieving person is not ready for oral prayer.

Be a friend now—and for the long run. After emotional events such as the death of a loved one, relationships and old friendships sometimes become strained. Other family members and bystanders simply can’t understand the depths of emotional pain the grieving person suffers. They feel uncomfortable. They don’t know what to say, so they stay away. Be courageous and spend quality time with the suffering person.

Share memories about their loved one. During the memorial service, family and friends tell tearful stories of their memories of the deceased person. However afterward, people rarely mention the name of the deceased for fear of arousing emotional pain. Yet, not hearing the name causes equal pain. Grievers crave hearing their loved one’s name and yearn to hear more stories about their lives. They want to remember the details of their life—not forget them.

Offer practical acts of kindness. Help the grieving person face each new task. Help them make funeral arrangements, pay bills, do laundry, cook, and clean. All these tasks are insurmountable at first, but a little help from a friend shrinks the tasks to manageable size.

Send cards, but add a personal touch. Circle or underline key words to show you’ve

Photo by Mary Eble

Photo by Mary Eble

carefully selected the card. Add a personal note. Send “Thinking of you” greetings from time to time. People who grieve often think their friends have forgotten them. Your card or note reassures them that they’re not forgotten. Send index cards with encouraging Bible verses with your card.

Provide a healthy meal. Keep in mind that not everyone likes tuna-noodle casseroles or pasta dishes.

Chaplain Bob Ossler. Walking my friend to a doctor's appointment in Philadelphia

Walking my elderly friend to his doctor’s appointment in Philadelphia. Chaplain Bob Ossler

Offer transportation to appointments. Grief consumes the brain’s resources and focus. Driving in traffic adds to their stress. Transport them to their appointments, and then treat them to a meal. They need a break and some company.

Encourage grieving people to seek community support groups or individual counseling. The grieving person may benefit from counseling or connecting with others who experienced a similar loss. When appropriate, ask if they’ve considered talking to a counselor or pastor, or joining a grief recovery group. Provide names and addresses of counselors or grief groups obtained from people who’ve experienced the same type of loss.

Suggest support groups. Griefshare (griefshare.org/hope) or TAPS (www.taps.org) help mourners identify with others going through the same struggles.

Grieving is a lonely process, but family members, friends, caregivers, and others can offer comfort and restore hope in the lives of those who have lost loved ones.

Chaplain Bob Ossler and Janice Hall Heck have coauthored Triumph Over Terror, a book about Chaplain’s Ossler’s experiences at Ground Zero after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

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A Chaplain Reflects on the Parkland School Shooting on the One-Year Anniversary

By Chaplain Bob Ossler

Valentine’s Day represents romance and love for couples—or lack of—for anxious, lonely singles. However, for parents, family, and friends of the 17 victims (14 students, 3 staff) of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas School shooting in 2018, Valentine’s Day represents the loneliness, loss, and horrible trauma of the first anniversary of those they loved and lost.

The day of the shooting, a Cape Coral, FL firefighter buddy called and told me the news. “Chaplain Bob, there’s been a shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida. Are you going?”

“I’m on my way,” I replied. I tossed my Bible, a box of 9-11 Ground Zero crosses, and some clothes into the backseat of my car, and headed to Parkland, a town of just over 31,000 people just 3 1/2 hours away. My mission: to show support for the people of the community, to bring comfort and love, to share a hug and a prayer, or just be there to listen, to be a shoulder to lean on. It’s so important to listen to those who grieve.  

I met a couple where I stopped for coffee and asked, “Can you give me the directions to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School?”

They replied, “Our child goes there.” They talked about their uneasiness about the situation and the terrible loss of young lives. “Our hearts ache for the families who lost children. Now, how can we send our child back to that school. It has been violated in the worst possible way. It will always be a crime scene for us. It will never be the same. The students will fear going to school.”

I agreed with their sentiments and said, “I’m a chaplain. Can I pray with you?” They nodded and leaned to me. We huddled, arms around each other, as I prayed and asked God to comfort them and the families and students of Parkland.

After I prayed with them, they thanked me and hugged me like I was a long-lost friend. I drove to the school, humbled by this couple’s pain, anticipating the grief that would be written on the faces of each person I’d meet.

At the high school, I showed my credentials (not just anyone can show up at a crime scene), walked on site, and talked with officers. They, too, were overwhelmed with sorrow over the senseless shooting and the tragic loss of life. This hit too close to home for them. “These were our sons and daughters.”

Now, one year later, when I think back to Parkland, a couple of things stand out in my heart and mind. School buses ringed the crime scene. In my childhood, school buses were symbols of safety. A yellow bus picked me up from the safety of my home and transported me to a safe school. The bus driver was kind, and students talked and laughed with friends with no worries in the world.

But it was different at Parkland. School buses formed a tight circle to block the view of an awful crime scene, keeping the anxious public at a distance. The big yellow symbol no longer represented safety but became a barrier. How things have changed since the innocence of my childhood.

In the school yard, I witnessed the trauma in people’s lives: Students and families could not be comforted.

Parkland, FL. 9-11 Ground Zero crosses hang on a fence near Marjory Stoneham Douglas High School in memory of 17 students killed. Bob Ossler photo.

Parkland, FL. 9-11 Ground Zero crosses hang on a fence near Marjory Stoneham Douglas High School in memory of 17 students killed. Bob Ossler photo.

Disbelief and sorrow spilled over in tears as parents hugged their children and students embraced classmates. Dozens of news reporters clamored for interviews. People made political statements to the press. Emergency vehicles cluttered the area. It was not a peaceful scene.

Down the street a short distance from the school, I hung 17 crosses for the victims on a fence. The media lined up to interview me at the fence.  They wanted to hear my reaction to the pain and suffering I saw at Parkland.

Since Parkland, I regret to say that I’ve gone to three more shooting events to serve the traumatized—Jacksonville, FL; Pittsburgh, PA; and Sebring, FL. Far too often, emergency workers find themselves on assignment after assignment covering shootings, mass murder, and those left behind. They do their best to manage the strain and put aside their memories, but some do suffer from post-traumatic stress syndrome. Memories haunt them for years.

Our lives are different now. We feel the pain of those who experience loss at these shootings. We wonder, “When will it end?” In the end, many of us turn to our faith and prayer for comfort, and we reach out to comfort those who grieve.

Air Force veteran, Bob Ossler, author of Triumph Over Terror, is no stranger to offering comfort in

Chaplain Bob Ossler at Parkland, FL 2018 shooting site

Chaplain Bob Ossler at Parkland, FL. 2018 shooting site

the midst of tragedy. Chaplain Ossler served five tours of duty at Ground Zero after 9/11; responded after Hurricane Katrina by serving as a triage paramedic and chaplain in the Superdome in 2005; offered comfort to the families of the Hotshot firefighters team who lost 19 firefighters in the Yarnell Hill Fire in 2013 in Arizona;  prayed with and comforted those traumatized by the back-to-back  ambush killings of police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge in 2016. Most recently he served in the aftermath of the 2018 synagogue shootings in Pittsburgh, PA.

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Book Review by Kathryn Ross: Triumph Over Terror

“Questions swirled in our minds: why did these terrorists do such an evil thing?  Where was God? . . . A firefighter who saves lives should not be dead, but he was—his annihilation caused by terrorists who cared nothing about the sanctity of human life . . . Firefighters, police officers, and recovery workers were saddened by this death; but their determination remained strong. Americans cannot forget this tragic scene, ever. These firefighters will not have died in vain if America always remembers what happened on September 11. 2001.”

Excerpt from Bob Ossler’s book,   Triumph Over Terror  w/Janice Hall Heck

Chaplain Bob Ossler served five tours of duty at Ground Zero in the aftermath of the terror attack and destruction of the Twin Towers on 9/11. His peculiar training as a firefighter, paramedic, mortician, and ordained minister substantially prepared him to serve in a setting that no one is ever really prepared to experience.

What he witnessed there in recovering the remains of the thousands of souls who perished in the ash heap is seared into his mind and heart. He ministered solace and comfort to the mourning community of volunteer and neighbors toiling to restore order from the destructive chaos. Stepping into the skin of the workers and their pain, Chaplain Bob sought to be the ministry of Jesus in the lives of everyone he met there.

Fourteen years later he attended the writer’s group I co-lead with seasoned editor Janice Hall Heck. “I think I need to write a book,” he said, “but, I’m not much of a writer.”

He’s a storyteller.

In that May 2015 writer’s meeting, he shared a couple of his 9/11 tales in a soft, breathy delivery. Jan and I dropped our jaws in amazement, emotionally transported by his imagery. His powerful words drew us into the heart-rending moments of the people he met, the things he saw, and the jobs he performed, with a mix of wonder, horror, and fascination.

“You must write this book, Bob,” we encouraged him. This was an important book that should find a reading audience—especially in these turbulent times where terrorism is more prevalent than ever.

People are in great need of God’s peace and comfort. Click To Tweet

Jan committed to work closely with him to the purpose.

I had the privilege of spending the early days of this book project on the phone with Bob, encouraging him as he began the mind dump of long buried memories. Often he ran a story past me and I’d be dumbstruck at the powerful image it conjured, and the pain evoked in my heart. “Did you send that story to Janice?” I’d ask.

“No. I thought it might be too much. Too brutal to share and read.”

“You must include it.” I’d say. But, Bob was not convinced.

We attended the Greater Philadelphia Christian Writer’s Conference in the summer of 2015 with Jan’s book proposal of the work, including about thirty stories in a first draft to show editors and authors for review.

Bob Ossler Triumph Over Terror

Award-winning novelist Eva Marie Everson, who was in Manhattan on 9/11, advised Bob directly, “Show me the blood.” Click To Tweet

Bob was hesitant because he knew the chambers that would be opened were he to share some of the more horrifying images. There’d be an emotional toll on his own tender heart to relive those moments in exact language. Bravely, he turned the key to memory and his words poured onto the page, mingling both tears and insight.

A year later, thanks to the vision of Scoti Domeij of Blackside Publishing, and the long, tedious hours of editorial manuscript work by co-author, Janice Hall Heck, Bob’s Triumph Over Terror has released just ahead of the 15th anniversary of 9/11.

Bob Ossler, Janice Hall Heck, Triumph Over Terror

Triumph Over Terror has been a cathartic exercise for Bob. In the process of liberating his experiences at Ground Zero in detail, he created a healing work to help others purge pain and trauma in their lives. Each tale of an isolated incident closes with a glorious testimony of God’s tender mercies in the midst of tragedy.

Bob’s stories are the raw truth of the painful moments he walked through, along with the workers and volunteers who served by his side in the clean-up and recovery efforts. It is a first person documentation in memory of the souls found in the ruins—and the survivors.  The horrid sights, smells, and sounds they worked in each day on the “Pile” reminds us that sin stinks and should have no place in civil societies. It gives us a sense of what the enemy looks like and what we must never allow ourselves to become desensitized to. Never Forget.

Triumph Over Terror flags

In an early chapter, Bob likens the initial sight of the tower ruins to a Hollywood disaster movie set. Some sections are difficult to read due to the scenes described—until you get to the redemption part.

You see, every short chapter story of an encounter on the Pile, ends with the grace of God and light in the darkness. Hope in the face of evil rises to the surface, leaving the reader with a firmer grasp of reality in both the spiritual and material world.

The intersection of tragedy and triumph makes the sign of a cross. Click To Tweet

Bob’s presence on the Pile crossed over the terror element with a more powerful triumph factor. In the wake of painful encounters, God showed up every time and, in some way, turned the tide one life at a time.

Jesus arrived in this world, getting down and dirty with us in our painful suffering. The presence of God walked and talked in the waste Pile of man, powerful to redeem and heal—though scars remain. The events of 9/11 scarred a nation. They’ve left their mark on Chaplain Bob. He’s in good company there. The resurrected Jesus showed His scars and wore them as badges of honor, awarded by God the Father, proof of the pleasing work accomplished at the crossroad of terror and triumph 2000 years ago.

In the darkness His Light shines. Click To Tweet

Chaplain Bob wants to tell his story–so others can find healing in God’s Story.

Bob Ossler, Chaplain

In Summary

Chaplain Bob Ossler’s five tours of duty in the dark place of terror’s aftermath, produced scars, now turned to the light of redemption in his book, Triumph Over Terror. Janice Hall Heck provided expert and meticulous attention to editing his written narratives, arranging them into chronological and thematic chapters. The result is both a primary source account of an important historical event, as well as a manual for anyone desiring to know the different ways God can minister to hearts in crisis, struggling through loss, grief, and trauma.

I believe this is a vital read for every American. But, anyone seeking God to lift them into a place of triumph over troublesome times in their lives will find answers here, too. Grief counselors and ministers should make place on their resource bookshelf for this book, as well.

For my part, I’m making sure my loved ones receive signed copies of Triumph Over Terror. I am proud to have played a very small part in bringing it to print.


About the Author:

“I teach families how to restore their God-given authority as the primary educator in their child’s life through the experience of reading together as a family. Learn how to use literature to create teachable moments, build strong minds, and bind loving hearts.” Kathryn Ross, writer, speaker, and dramatist, ignites a love of literature and learning to equip young and old towards developing a Family Literacy Lifestyle—reading together, learning together, loving together. Her works challenge families to deepen their literacy skills and grow into the greater things God has purposed for them. She’s taught in Christian and homeschool circles, trained in the Principle Approach® through the Foundation for American Christian Education. Miss Kathy owns Pageant Wagon Publishing, producing homeschool enrichment materials, devotional works, study guides, and theatrical dramas for church, school, and community production. She podcasts at TheWritersReverie.com and blogs at PageantWagonPublishing.co

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Book Review by Angelina Assanti-SWFL Online: Triumph Over Terror

Read the latest book review from Angelina Assanti in the Southwest Florida Online journal.

This Week’s Featured Author – Bob Ossler Chaplain

Article by: Angelina Assanti

In this week’s edition of “Between the Covers,” we feature the writing team of Bob Ossler and Janice Hall Heck. Their fascinating award-winning book, Triumph Over Terror, was born of tragedy.


Chaplain Bob at Ground Zero 2001

Mr. Ossler was a full-time firefighter in Chicago who earned a degree in pastoral ministry by going to classes part-time. He became an ordained chaplain. It took him seventeen years to complete the degree requirements.

That would be a feat for anyone, but Bob Ossler has lived with ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) his whole life– officially diagnosed in adulthood. His ADHD made getting an education challenging especially when it came to reading and writing reports and following directions.

An ADHD diagnosis is not uncommon now, but it was something not many doctors knew about or even how to treat as Bob was growing up. ADHD makes things that the average person takes for granted – such as writing – monumental tasks. Little did Mr. Ossler know that one day, that little boy who was labeled as “naughty” and easily-distracted would be counseling and consoling people at Ground Zero and other national tragedies. He would then go on to co-author several books.

Mr. Ossler grew up in Chicago with three siblings. His mother remarried a fair but firm disciplinarian. Despite Mr. Ossler’s difficulty being able to focus and follow directions, he was good with his hands, imagination, memory, and creating things. As a young man, Bob entered the military where he trained in x-ray technology and as an emergency medical technician. Both of these prepared him for the physical requirements of disasters.

The real challenge with disaster is in one’s mind. When I asked Mr. Ossler about this, he had a lengthy reply. Normally, I would edit someone’s response but I felt in this case, it was better to hear his insightful comments because few of us will be able to talk to someone who was actually at Ground Zero and learn about the tragedy from a first-hand observer.

tot with awards“People suffer through tragic events and often keep their thoughts and feelings to themselves. Sometimes this leads to depression or post-traumatic stress syndrome. I buried my feelings at Ground Zero. I put on a brave front because I didn’t want to break down in front of people who needed my counseling. The sights we saw traumatized us – workers, visitors to Ground Zero, and chaplains alike. The horrific sights broke our hearts and spirits – even those with the best training and experience.

I realized in meetings with other chaplains that we all had these feelings of frustration, helplessness, and inner turmoil. Each of us suffered in silence. Individually we could only help one person at a time. But together we could pray, help, and encourage each other first, then those we wanted to serve. When we shared our pain with colleagues, we felt a measure of relief. Even more so, our written words could expand our reach with the message that despite our pain, there is hope and sharing is the first step to healing.”

When I asked Mr. Ossler why he decided to write a book, he said, “The stories I had gathered while at Ground Zero would offer a tribute to those heroes who lost their lives there. In addition, I wanted to honor those workers and volunteers who spent hours in search, rescue, and recovery work. It was gruesome but necessary work. I needed to clear my head of these memories of suffering that I witnessed at Ground Zero. Writing became therapeutic for me. As I wrote, I released some of the pain of memories.”

Mr. Ossler and his writing partner, Janice Hall Heck, are currently working on a book about dealing with ADHD. Ossler says of his diagnosis, ADHD never goes away but changes at every stage of life. The trick is learning how to deal with it. In the new book, as yet untitled, Bob tells of past personal discouraging and sometimes humiliating experiences with his ADHD. Now after years of reflection, he offers strategies to help to manage those difficulties.

Chaplain Bob Ossler in Baton Rouge after police shootings offering comfort and prayer for brokenhearted people.

Chaplain Bob Ossler in Baton Rouge after police shootings offering comfort and prayer for brokenhearted people.

Bob and Janice frequently do book signings together and share stories from their book. They are also available for speaking engagements when Bob is not out of town. He is still traveling and giving care as a chaplain when tragedy strikes. You may have seen his picture and not even known it. He is frequently the chaplain people see in high-profile tragedies.

Many people get labeled and defined by the things they can or can’t do. Too many people today are told they have limitations. I cannot help but think about all the people Bob Ossler and Janice Hall Heck have impacted by sharing this beautiful and tragic story 9-11. There is a lesson to all of us who have been told what we are capable of. Some will believe it and some will step out behind a label and radically impact people’s lives. I know there are thousands of people who have been affected by having Mr. Ossler there when they need comfort the most.

Triumph Over Terror has won two prestigious awards:

  • Best Book Awards Finalist, 2017, American Book Fest
  • International Book Awards Finalist, 2018, International Book Awards.


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