Living with the Tiger

Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change. Courage to change the things I can. And, the wisdom to know the difference. I believe the Serenity Prayer was written for an officer's spouse. No other occupation combines the inconveniences, threats, stigma, and cumulative emotional and physical stress. Law enforcement is unique. Its stresses are distinctive. Fortunately, spouses can easily acquire and master coping strategies. Here are four stressful situations and techniques to overcome these obstacles.

No Greater Love: Death

A universal fear is the death of a spouse. Police families have the added threat of a sudden, violent death. After the funeral, the spouse is left with a void. Often wondering how she will even survive, the thought of healing feels unrealistic. Survival is possible and so is feeling better.

Ellen Kirschman, Ph.D., author of I Love a Cop, states, "Trauma forces us to contemplate the inevitability of our own death and brings us face to face with grief and hopelessness. So it follows that, as we recover from trauma, we must first grieve for our losses--our lost companions as well as our lost illusions about the world and ourselves." Allowing yourself time to grief is extremely important.

A 1997 survey by Concerns of Police Survivors (COPS) shows 32 percent of surviving spouses met the criteria for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Ask family and friends to help you. Most of the time, they want to but do not know what you need. Seek professional guidance for however long it's necessary. Everyone's grief process is different. Embrace yours and allow yourself the caring you need.

Many departments have a formal policy for assisting a surviving spouse. But, even without one, most law enforcement managers, as well as any officer, would be willing to assist. Some agencies have a family liaison officer who is assigned after an officer's death. All you need to do is ask.

According to COPS, "Extensive and graphic media coverage of the death, and the slow, unresponsive criminal justice system both take their toll on line-of-duty death survivors. Quite often, psychological closure is delayed for many years as legal issues concerning the death are argued in the courts and discussed in the media." Again, attend to your needs and let others help.

Left Behind: Death of a Colleague

The number one strategy for coping with a traumatic loss, even if it isn't your spouse, is to take care of yourself. Be kind to yourself. Dealing with your officer's feelings of guilt and confusion, as well as your children's fears, can leave you drained. Family stress adds to your own, making it crucial to take good care of yourself. Exercise, eat healthy foods, and take time each day to relax. All these strategies will make it easier for you to cope.

"Although families can do a lot to help an officer recover from trauma, the bottom line is that no matter how much you love someone, you cannot dissolve that person's trauma nor recuperate for him or her. What you can do is manage the consequences in order to minimize the impact on yourself and your family. You can avoid creating a second injury, and you can try to go on as normally as possible," Kirschman says.

How the Mighty Have Fallen: Injury

Do not isolate yourself. Talking with people who can provide empathy and support can lift a bit of the burden of dealing with a critical event and the aftermath. If your officer has a hard time being cared for or feeling helpless, the tension could be even higher. Allow others to come over and help, so you can get away for respite. You are not abandoning your spouse. You are refilling your coffers. Kirschman suggests, "Try to 'buddy up' with another police spouse or friend. You and your buddy can provide each other with reciprocal support free from the need to keep a stiff upper lip, be strong, be cheerful, and so on, in front of the family. It is healthy to interact with others...It's a mistake to assume you can handle this alone, although it's typical of law enforcement families to be so independent they feel they are violating some deeply held value to ask for help." Maintain friendships outside of the home. If you usually meet with other parents at the park, or go to a weekly book club meeting, continue to do so. Maintaining routine is also important to healing.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde: Emotional Control

Although emotional repercussions of police work are less immediately traumatic, their cumulative effects can cause as much stress as a line-of-duty death or injury. According to the Institute of HeartMath, "Constant exposure to society's interpersonal violence, negative or confrontational interactions with individuals, a sense of personal endangerment, fear of revenge from criminals, and subservience to an ambivalent, watchful public produce negative emotional repercussions that can affect police officers on a chronic basis." Add to this, extensive emotional control training and the prevalent attitude of "cops don't cry," and the spouse of an officer is often faced with a robot where her husband used to be. Communication is essential in any relationship, but in law enforcement families it is even more so. Often officers do not want to talk about work, and often spouses don't really want to hear about it, but you need communication about other things. Talk with your spouse about what kind of ritual he would be comfortable with. Does he need a bit of time after he gets home from work to relax, and then would be willing to talk with you? What works for each person and each family is personal. The important thing is to work on keeping lines of communication open. Be empathetic and use active listening skills such as summarizing. Insist on the same respect from your spouse.

Numerous stressors affect families every day. Police families are especially prone to sudden and cumulative stress. Vali Stone, author of Cops Don't Cry, states, "It's just the idea that on any working day the officer could be murdered. The spouse attempts to put those fears on the back burner, gives her spouse a loving goodbye and continues on with a normal working day. But as much as we like to ignore these feelings, they are always a tiger at our door." The tiger does not have to be debilitating. By being cognizant of mental, emotional, and physical needs, law enforcement spouses can maintain a happy, healthy home, no matter what the job throws at them.