The Horrors I'll Never Understand

Officers and their spouses have to deal with all the issues facing most couples, regardless of occupation, and then some. One is the physical and emotional response to critical incidents.

A critical incident does not have to be dramatic, such as taking a life, but can also include smaller incidents. "You can have an officer who has a young child and has to respond to the scene of a car accident and pull out the child who is the same gender and age as his own. He will have a difficult time with that scene," says Teresa Tate, founder of Survivors of Law Enforcement Suicide (SOLES). "If you take another officer without children, he will probably not respond the same way." Every officer is different, but we have special insight into the types of incidents which might negatively affect our loved one.

Stress is a negative effect, inherent in police work. Overwhelming stress can occur from just one critical incident, or it can build up over time like bricks, threatening to overwhelm an officer's emotional and physical health. As a spouse, you need to be aware of the type of events he which might need help with.

Daily Events

One thing affecting officers negatively is compassion fatigue. "When someone comes to you every day with negative things, officers become overwhelmed with all of this negative in life," states Dr. Thomas Gillan, Director of the Central Florida Police Stress Unit (CFPSU). "Compassion fatigue is the cost of caring too much. If officers don't have a way of replenishing the water in their own wells and have someone help them process this it becomes very heavy, a burden."

Another situation is a call which deeply affects an officer for personal reasons. Many years ago, my LEO husband came home from the midnight shift, despondent. Coming into the bedroom, he tossed his uniform on the floor and plopped down on the bed beside me. He sat there with his head hung staring at his hands. After taking a deep breath, he shook me and asked if I was awake. Then, he recited the events of a call he had been on. His tone was monotonous and he sounded as if he was calling in the report to the Voice Writer as he told me about a four-year-old girl who had been run over by her father on his tractor. Fortunately, the ground was wet from rain and her head was just pressed into the mud. She was taken to the hospital where she survived. Our son was four at the time, and my husband blandly stated he just kept seeing him out there pressed into the dirt. As he told me this, I felt helpless. I didn't know what to say or how to ease my husband's pain. After sitting silently for a few more minutes, he got up and left the room. He never said another word about it, although he was moody and distant for several weeks afterwards.

Critical Incidents

The effect of critical incidents on officer's mechanisms has become a concern for the law enforcement community, including their families. Organizations such as the FBI, the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), and Tears of a Cop (TOAC) provide information about the effects of a critical incident and coping strategies. Another wonderful resource is the International Critical Incident Stress Foundation. A critical incident, especially one involving death or serious injury, can traumatize an officer. The trauma does not stay at work. Bringing it home, it affects his family. As a civilian, it is hard to picture what an officer goes through, and the event might be incomprehensible. Allen Kates, author of Cop Shock: Surviving Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, points out, "No matter what family members might think of the events, they should never minimize what the officer has experienced. Perception is everything. If officers feel traumatized, then they are."

Without empathy and support, many officers internalize the stress caused by daily events and critical incidents. This often begins to overwhelm an officer's coping mechanisms, causing a wide range of problems, including relationship and intimacy issues, heavy drinking, depression, physical ailments and suicide. As loved ones, we don't choose what our officers are exposed to. We can't protect them from the bad things they encounter on the job. What we can do, is be aware of situations which might affect them negatively and be prepared to help them.

What Loved Ones Can Do

Cops are human. Training and experience creates the hard exterior, but underneath this exoskeleton is your husband or wife. Knowing them on an intimate level gives you a unique advantage when it comes to determining if they are being affected by stress. Some common indicators are:

  • Easily frustrated/emotional/moody
  • Low self-esteem
  • Chronic tension
  • Low energy
  • Memory problems
  • Lack of interest in usual activities or sex
  • Headaches and digestive problems

Many symptoms, such as social isolation, are commonly found in police families, regardless of the stress level. Remember, any change in behavior could be an indication your officer is overwhelmed.

According to Kates, many things can be done to support an officer, including:

  • Listen.
  • Encourage them to talk, but don't push.
  • Do not say everything is okay. It isn't.
  • Don't allow officers to cover up.
  • Be prepared that officers may choose to talk to fellow officers or a minister instead of spouses or life partners. Don't be offended. Officers will tap into their support systems. You are part of that system, not the whole thing.
  • This is a terrible time for officers and often they feel alone or abandoned. Stick with them. They need you.

Being married to a police officer can be one of the toughest jobs on the planet. In my opinion, nothing is quite as exciting or as irritating or as depressing or as rewarding. The world can be a very ugly place and our loved one is tasked with being the peacemaker of that world. The emotional and physical toll of this responsibility can be high. With information, empathy and the love which already exists, we can help our officers cope. Keep in mind; you must also take care of yourself. Seek out support from other spouses, professionals and department chaplains. We have the power to neutralize the effects of police work and maintain happy, healthy families.