Between 1999 and 2005, 8 Phoenix police officers died. All on duty and all while I loved a police officer of my own.
The day of Marc Atkinson's burial, I stayed home. Solemn, my then-husband picked microscopic lint off his uniform. His badge gleamed, muted only by a black elastic band. As he drove away, I questioned why I didn't accompany him. Wasn't that what a good officer's wife would do? Shouldn't I stand beside him for support during this time of grief? Yes, I should have, but I didn't. I could not deal with my emotions. I shut out the incident, along with, my husband. If I didn't care, I wouldn't hurt. I reminded myself several times a day, He's an officer. He's going to die. Deal!
Several months later, a suspect threw Goelet Beuf under the wheels of a semi. This time I attended the candlelight vigil, giving a pillow I had embroidered to his widow. After saying a few inadequate words, my four-year-old son started doing cartwheels. I was horrified. She just watched him and commented on how kids show us life goes on. I stood by my husband's side at her husband's funeral. At the gravesite, the missing man formation overhead, I nearly passed out. Taking a few steps away from my husband, I steadied myself. I never stepped towards him again. After all, it was just a matter of time before he would be dead. Needless to say, my coping strategy led to only one death: my marriage.
My coping strategies are not unique. When an officer is killed, other officers' spouses are left to cope. Fortunately, it is possible to recover. As a partner, you can help your spouse, your children, and yourself integrate the experience and maintain healthy relationships with your family and your spouse's occupation. This article addresses supporting your spouse after the death of another officer. In April, I will talk about coping strategies for your children and in May, coping strategies for yourself.
Taking care of your spouse after the death of a colleague can be difficult, especially if your spouse was at the scene during or immediately following the death. Your spouse might have the added trauma of having killed the person who murdered his colleague. Ellen Kirschman, Ph.D, author of I Love a Cop outlines steps for assisting your spouse through their traumatic response. The first step, stabilization, includes encouraging your spouse to attend debriefing. Debriefing allows him to get accurate information and feedback regarding the incident. Many times officers will run the event continuously in their mind, second guessing every action he took. Getting feedback from other officers and trained critical incident stress management (CISM) personnel can put his mind more at ease by providing a big-picture perspective to the incident. Also included in the stabilization stage is encouraging your spouse to attend to his personal needs. Support your spouse in pursuing time off, accepting light duty, or obtaining additional psychological assistance if necessary. Recovering from trauma often requires outside help, and seeking it projects knowledge of stress and strength, not weakness.
Once stabilized, you and your spouse can move onto the next step: working through the trauma. The important aspects of this step include finding meaning, integrating the experience, and allowing mourning. Kirschman explains, "Human beings seem to be wired in such a way that we cannot rest easy until we make sense of our experiences." Every officer finds meaning in a unique way. Talking, either with a professional, trained peer counselor, or with empathetic family members can facilitate this understanding. Integrating the experience follows naturally with and from finding meaning. "In order to integrate a traumatic event, you need to reclaim full memory for it and own all the associated emotions," Kirschman says. Allow your spouse to do this in his own way. Whether that means talking it through, journaling, expressing himself in other artistic ways, or giving testimony reference the experience, whatever method your spouse finds, the important thing is it is his choice.
A final aspect in working through the trauma is mourning. Encourage your spouse to feel his emotions. Remind him all emotions are valid. When another officer dies, colleagues feel sadness, anger at any person involved, as well as, themselves for being unable to prevent the tragedy, and feelings of relief for having survived. Of course, the feelings of relief often add guilt and shame. Allow your spouse to work through these feelings and mourn the loss. Remember not to cover your own feelings while offering support. Kirschman explains, "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."
Five years after Marc's death, I was again at an officer's funeral. This was the second in as many days. Sitting close to the front of the church, I held my fiancé's hand. Tears streamed down his face. Eric White had recently transferred off his squad and he had the utmost respect for him as an officer and as a person. Although all officers' deaths are a personal blow, this one carried memories with it. This time, I was determined not to let the pain, fear, and worry consume me. I was determined to support my fiancé, as well as, myself and to cope in a healthy way. I believe I succeeded. My officer is now my husband.
The loss of an officer is never easy, especially when it happens in the line of duty. When a homicide, accident, or even a suicide occurs in the law enforcement family, it affects everyone. Emotions are not left at work at the end of a shift. They are carried home and mix with the emotions of spouses and children. This mixture, and the way we cope with it, can make the difference between a healthy recovery for everyone and a volatile situation which leaves everyone emotionally and often physically ill. Kirschman states, "The professional bond that links cops everywhere makes one cop's trauma the property of all. One traumatic incident creates shock waves throughout the law enforcement community causing cops and their families to ask 'What if it were me?'" Being left behind holds its own difficulties. Fortunately, with information and compassion, your family can recover.