It would be impossible not to be moved by USA Today feature story about the volunteers at Santa-America, who swing into action this time of year in 40 states to minister to children who are living in hospice care or those who face the lose of a parent. There is a ghost in this life-and-death story and guest writer Marcia Manna knows it.
Children are going to ask the big questions. Santa is expected to answer. But the Santas are not there to play God. Maybe.
The Santas are an elite and bearded group from all backgrounds: Some are retired, others work at jobs that range from salesmen to psychologists. Before visiting a home or hospital, they memorize names of family members and pets; they undergo a rigorous background check and receive ongoing instruction in grief, bereavement, symptom management and spirituality.
"First and foremost, you have to remember that these are children, and you have to go in treating them like children," says John Scheuch, Santa-America's executive director. "I have visited babies who are only weeks old, and, on Christmas morning, it's clear that some won't survive. There are others who are realizing where they are and what is going to happen and they are wrestling with that. I visited a 6-year-old who asked Santa, 'What is it going to be like when I die?' After a gulp and a deep breath, I said, 'I don't really know, but I do know you will not be hurting or in pain anymore and that can only be more pleasant.' Then we spoke of other things."
It's the small details that grab you in this story, like the all-seeing Santa receiving his briefing papers before he enters each hospice room -- making sure that he knows the name of the dog back at home, the nicknames for the grandparents and other crucial, private, details.
But the details stop when it comes time to deal with that final loaded word -- spirituality.
Are the Santas briefed to handle the questions of children from religious families as well as those from secular households? We don't know. Are the Santas briefed to give answers that in any way support the prayers and the pastoral counsel offered by rabbis, pastors, priests and others? We don't know.
It seems that this is the frying pan that is too hot to touch. But why avoid those details in a story that is already digging into these kinds of raw, emotional questions?
Once again, it is clear that the Santas know that this issue is real. They also know that in many cases they will need to be supportive, yet spiritually neutral. But what about cases in which the family has specific beliefs that need to be supported? I would imagine that an organization of this kind has to have faced that question and developed a policy on how to handle it. I imagine that this question is covered in one of those training briefings in "spirituality."
The answer just isn't in this story. The ghost remains right out in the open for all to see.
Santa-America was founded seven years ago by Ernest Berger in southwest Alabama.
"Our motto is 'Elf Before Self,' " says Berger, 66. "Many of us may be people of faith, but we are not a faith-based organization. We deal in a secular world. Rather than deny the elephant in the room, the essence of hospice is that death is natural, though it may not come at a natural time."
PHOTO: From the photo collection at Santa-America.org.