by Allison Sampite
As the chaplain of the Medical Examiner’s Office in San Diego, Joe Davis, 62, has many responsibilities. They include aiding Medical Examiner investigators with investigations, following up with families to offer condolences and answer questions, personally delivering death notifications and releasing property of the deceased, among other things.
“There’s a pretty severe price to pay doing what we do (he said of medical examiner staff) … we’re not built in any way, shape or form to deal with what we do everyday.”
Yet for the past nearly 20 years, day in and day out, Joe’s life has revolved around death and he wouldn’t change a thing. In 2000 the Medical Examiner’s Office for the first time was considering a chaplaincy.
Joe had grown up in the Bay Area in a divided household—his mother, a devout Christian, his father, an agnostic and alcoholic. The schism was one that heavily influenced Joe during different times in his life. As a boy, he remembers his dad’s involvement in gangs, alcohol, drugs and prostitution.
“I remember when I was a little kid people would come to the door and say, ‘Give this to your dad.’ It was a box full of cash. That was his life.”
Up until he turned 14, Joe attended church with his mom on Sundays, but also hung out with his dad as much as possible. For example, every Saturday he acted as his father’s caddy and once he stopped attending church with his mother, would spend Sunday afternoons during football season on the couch with his dad. By the time Joe was in his mid-20s he’d become a functioning alcoholic just like his father.
“There was a point in my life where I was drinking a 12-pack a day and a gallon of rum a week.”
But that all changed after marrying his wife Bobbie at age 28 and giving his life to the Lord.
“The hardest part about my relationship with my dad is when I became a Christian because … he lost his drinking partner, he lost his buddy and he didn’t like it.”
Around this same time Joe was a pastoral counselor for a church he attended but was praying for guidance on the next chapter of his life. A friend began encouraging Joe to take classes that included traumatic grief and critical incident stress management, among others. Joe didn’t realize it at the time, but he was being shaped for his calling.
When the position opened up he jumped at the opportunity. Just a few years into his position, Joe created a free grief counseling program, accessible to every person involved in a case. He also wrote a grief booklet for families that covers appropriate types of grieving, helping children cope with a loss, and the first steps after death, among other things.
“Knowing that a family is so much better off because I’ve been able to interact with them, whether over the phone or in person … that’s the pay off,” he said.
But perhaps his biggest responsibility is being the calm in the midst of the storm that revolves around sudden, traumatic and unexpected death—the sum of what makes up medical examiner cases. Some of those untimely deaths include suicide.
When Joe first started in 2000, the county averaged between 312 and 320 suicides every year. That remained consistent until 2008 when the recession hit. But after the economy went south the numbers began to rise. Currently, the number of suicides are in the mid-to high 400s, according to data provided on the Medical Examiner’s website.
Up until five years ago, the one disconnect Joe felt was the one of survivors who lost a loved one to suicide because he hadn’t experienced that type of loss. But on a January morning in 2013, when the body of his father was discovered floating face down by a young park ranger at Santee Lakes, everything seemed to come full circle.
Officials reported his father had parked his green Taurus on the property, swallowed a bunch of pills, drank the majority of a bottle of vodka and walked into the lake. His father was diagnosed with depression, prescribed medication, and had a previous attempt two years prior. He was living with Joe and Bobbie for a year prior to his death.
Sadly, Joe says he now has a genuine connection with the survivors of those who died by suicide because he can better walk them through what’s coming; the tragedy making him a more effective chaplain.
“I think it does help that I’ve had to sit on that side of my desk … because now they feel that I really do get it. It gives a credibility that wouldn’t exist otherwise.”
Today Joe said he finds respite in playing golf and spending time with Bobbie. He is currently the only full time chaplain for a coroner in the United States.
Joe has been a consistent supporter of Survivor’s of Suicide Loss and the work the organization does in the community. In 2016 he joined the Board of Directors where his experience, knowledge, and passion benefit SOSL’s survivors support programs as well as enhance our suicide prevention efforts in San Diego.