One Saturday two years ago, Garry Senna was organizing tools in his garage when he glanced across the street and saw a man die.
“I looked over to the park just as a man on the tennis court clutched his chest and collapsed,” he said.
Senna ran to help, and then accompanied the ambulance to Valley Care Hospital to meet the man’s wife and comfort her as she realized her husband had passed away.
Seeing death up close is not unusual for Senna.
At age 21, he saw a man jump from a four-story office building in downtown Berkeley. The man died on impact right at Senna’s feet. “I kneeled down and held his head in my hand,” he said.
Senna said this suicide was particularly eerie because when his mother was 14 and living in New Jersey, the same thing happened to her. “A man jumped from a building and died at her feet,” he said.
Along with death, Senna witnesses accidents on a regular basis. “I don’t know what it is with me,” he said, shaking his head, “but it’s rare for two or three months to go by without seeing an accident or someone in distress.”
Jenny Doehle, a friend of the Senna family, said that when her son James was five, they attended a pool party with other families, and James ended up in the pool in the middle of a lot of splashing kids.
“Garry jumped in to rescue my son,” she said. Amazingly, the same thing happened when James was eight, and Garry was there again to pull James out of the pool. “I’ve seen this happen with a couple of other kids, too, and shudder to think what would have happened if Garry wasn’t so vigilant and focused on the kids’ safety,” she said.
As senior pastor of Pleasanton’s Harvest Valley Christian Church, Senna, 48, has lived in Pleasanton since 1987. He and his wife Jody have four children, including a girl adopted from Latvia. While Senna serves a congregation of some 300 members, he is also a 14-year volunteer chaplain with the Pleasanton police department.
Senna’s duties as chaplain require that he deliver death notifications and care for grieving families in the event of an unexpected death.
“When a person dies unattended and unexpectedly,” Senna said, “the police consider the surroundings a crime scene until the situation is resolved. Having a chaplain tend to the family helps the police focus on their investigation.”
Senna estimates he has been called over the years between 35 to 40 times, either to be present after a death or to comfort family members. About half of those calls require that he personally notify the family of the death, as he did in April when a 20-year-old Pleasanton man committed suicide in Colorado. Senna and a police officer drove to Ruby Hill and knocked on the door of the parent’s home.
“It was 3:15 in the morning,” Senna said, “and I knew when those people opened that door that what I had to say would change their lives forever.”
The experience of delivering such news is always difficult, and Senna admits he never knows what he is going to say. “I have to speak to people at their most vulnerable time in life,” he said, “and I just pray for grace to say the right words when tragedy occurs.”
One such incident occurred in February when Senna was dispatched to the Stearns residence where a 37-year-old father had committed suicide in the backyard. The man’s wife, Michelle, and their two young sons were not home at the time. The suicide was discovered by the boys’ grandfather, who had been watching the boys that day and was returning home with them.
Senna said that while 10-year-old Jason and 5-year-old Cody knew something had happened, he was the one that afternoon who explained what happened and who helped the boys take the first steps to making sense of it all.
“Garry is an amazing and wonderful man,” said Michelle Stearns, mother of the two boys. “I don’t have words to describe what he means to me and my family.”
Stearns said that Senna stayed with the family the whole night after the incident, and then dropped in regularly, helping out whenever and wherever he was needed.
“We met a friend that night and he has been a friend ever since,” Stearns said. “He has been there for us every step of the way, and has helped reassure me that what I’m feeling is normal, that I’m going in the right direction.”
Stearns said that because her boys would not go into the backyard even several weeks after the incident, Senna and police officer Michael Collins stopped by one day and casually coaxed the boys into showing them a bike course Jason had built in the yard.
“Garry and Mike got the boys so excited about showing off their riding skills,” Stearns said, “that the boys grabbed their bikes and helmets and rode into the backyard to do jumps. Although we recently moved to another home in Pleasanton, it was a very important and emotional moment for all of us when the boys saw that there was nothing scary in the yard.”
Incidents with children provide some of the toughest challenges, said Senna, recalling a time when he received a call that a 3-year-old boy had apparently just drowned in a swimming pool. Senna arrived to find the distraught mother a few feet from the pool. A friend had pulled the boy from the water and performed CPR, but his heart had stopped. While paramedics worked, Senna took the mother aside to calm her, and also called the boy’s father who was at work in San Jose.
As Senna spoke to the father, he chose his words carefully. “Over the phone it’s important to minimize the situation as much as you realistically can,” Senna explained, “because the person has to be calm enough to drive to the hospital or wherever they need to go.”
Senna said if he revealed the boy’s heart had stopped, “there was no way that father was going to be able to drive himself forty miles to get home.”
Fortunately, the paramedics revived the boy as Senna kept in touch with the father by cell phone until he reached the hospital.
“The accident turned out to be a blessing,” Senna said. “The boy had a rare heart condition and if he hadn’t fallen in the pool, it may not have been diagnosed until much later, perhaps too late. As it was, the doctors discovered his condition and were able to operate successfully.”
Senna values his association with the Pleasanton police, and credits the department with going beyond required duties to ensure that relatives are notified of death in a caring, personal manner.
Pleasanton Police Chief Tim Neal describes Senna as an unsung hero who volunteers regularly for civic programs and is one of the most giving people he knows. “For years, Garry has comforted Pleasanton's victims of violence, families who have lost a child or loved one, and police officers involved in shootings and heart wrenching incidents.”
Neal said he often asks Senna to accompany him when meeting with victims of tragedy. “He lends me as much support as he does them,” said Neal.
For Senna, who grew up in New Jersey and after college worked as a photojournalist in Virginia for three years before moving to California, providing emotional and spiritual support to others is a calling he finds both challenging and deeply rewarding.
“If I can give people even a little bit of comfort, and help them through these moments,” he said, “that makes it worthwhile to me.”