No ‘one way’ to deal with grief
By John Muldoon
By John Muldoon
One of the most difficult things to deal with on the job is the “in the line of duty or off-duty” death of a colleague, especially if they were on your shift.
You’re reminded every time you go into the parade room and there is an empty chair.
You’re reminded when you see one radio not signed out or a spare patrol car in the parking lot.
The death of an on duty police officer usually culminates with a large police funeral with thousands of officers and law enforcement personnel from across Canada and the US.
The funerals are usually large affairs with much pomp, speeches, eulogies and flawless precision. The traditions’ and ceremonial nature give a measure of closure to the policing organization and communities as a whole. Combined, they all stand shocked at the death of a member(s). The funeral, both literally and figuratively, is a fitting goodbye to the departed.
There may be much sadness for a fallen comrade but there is a stoic look on each officer’s face that is brave, courageous and proud. This is a public face each puts on, as they know that their job is to “serve and protect.” One day a similar ceremony could be held for them. Police funerals are a reminder that each day they face the possibility of the unexpected.
The police are the frontline – the ones most of us look up to, respect and expect to keep our communities safe and livable.
The public outpouring of grief at a police funeral doesn’t usually offer the same closure to immediate family and coworkers. They are still very much in a state of numbness, shock and denial. The trauma and grief for the average officer, who didn’t know the fallen, can be assuaged by the playing of the last post or the marching egress procession after the funeral. Immediate families and close friends on the shift don’t get the same relief.
The real grieving is done in the back in the locker room, at the local bar, off duty in someone’s recreation room and sometimes alone in a quiet place.
Police officers are not incapable of grieving or demonstrating emotions – they just do it differently. There is the family of the officer who has died and then there is the police family.
Death of an off duty police officer due to an accident, sickness or natural causes is slightly different if there is not a full police funeral. In most cases there is a strong police presence but it is really a family affair.
There is less formality, more time to talk to one another, more time to reminisce and yes, possibly openly grieve – all out of the public view.
These opening few paragraphs may be an over simplification but it is natural to mourn and grieve the loss of a spouse, family member, colleague or friend, no matter your profession. We are all human beings.
Most of us don’t understand grieving because we are never taught what it means to grieve.
Talking about death is like the big white elephant in the room. Nobody really wants to discuss it. You only deal with it when it happens.
Sometimes we think we can get through grief without too much thinking about it, but in reality our minds and bodies react in their own way.
Webster’s Dictionary describes grief as “intense emotional suffering caused by a loss.” Grief’s companion word is bereavement, meaning, “to leave in a sad or lonely state as by death.”
Grief is “a protest against something the bereaved didn’t want, doesn’t like, but sadly can’t change,” writes Dr. Bill Webster, noted author, academic and Executive Director of the Centre for the Grief Journey in his book
<The task is to help them find themselves and search for meaning in this new and unwelcome world that they know nothing about and that they, or indeed we, cannot fully understand as yet.
Grief and bereavement are part of life when we lose a person in death. Losing a family pet, your job or even a divorce can also carry a form of grief.
There is no one-way or right way to grieve, nor is there a correct length of time. Each of us does it differently. Some of us will be very sad but as time passes, live with the fact that the person is gone and move on with our life. We never forget.
Others have prolonged grief, which may last for quite some time. Any kind of reminder can affect our emotions as we associate it to that person.
Others have what is called delayed grief – weeks or months pass and we enter into a period of unexpected grief that usually catches us off guard. This is the “grief attack.”
Grief affects our mind, physical body, daily routines – sometimes our ability to sleep and relate to other people. We just go through the motions. Margaret Greenspan, author of
<We pay psychotherapists to cure it, take Prozac to mute it, seek counseling from religions which extort us to rise above it, read inspirational books to overcome it, join recovery groups and self-help groups to cope with it, spend millions to escape it, use alcohol, drugs, food, work, possessions, sex, entertainment and all the techno-toys we can get to distract ourselves from it.”
Unacknowledged and unaddressed grief may manifest itself in many ways, such as:
- Inability to concentrate
- Eating disorders
- Posttraumatic stress disorder
- Acting out behavior
- Overspending, based on the attitude “what do I have to live for, I could be gone any day or at any time. Why don’t I spend now and worry about the consequences later.”
These are only a small sample of some symptoms of traumatic stress. If you think you may be suffering from any of these unacknowledged or unaddressed grief symptoms, get help.
In years past, it might have been seen as weakness for an officer to need or request help after a death or traumatic experience. Now, many police services and/or associations offer employee assistance programs to their sworn and civilian members. Despite what you may think or have heard, it is confidential unless there is clear evidence that you are in immediate danger of hurting yourself or others. Otherwise, it is only between you and your EAP representative.
Sometimes the best way to help you manage your grief and move forward is to seek professional assistance that is qualified to talk you through your grief. Remember, grief is not simple. It will affect you both physically and mentally. You have no control over it until you understand what you are going through. You’re not weak; you’re normal when you grieve.
Your police service or association should make it standard procedure to offer unlimited grief and bereavement counseling to the families of officers who have died and to their shift co-workers. Special counseling should also be offered to the family’s children and teenagers. They grieve differently from adults and need special counseling from those who specialize in these two groups. Otherwise there could be long-term effects.
As Dr. Webster reminds us, <during times of grief you may be tempted to think you are losing your mind. You are not. The truth is that your mind is elsewhere, usually reflecting on the person whom was lost, trying to come to terms with this unimaginable situation you find yourself in. In the early days after a loss, we struggle to accept what is unacceptable; to believe what is unbelievable; and to come to terms with something that seems incomprehensible.
<After the initial shock subsides, reactions vary from one person to another. The following, however, are some typical responses to a traumatic event:
- Feelings become intense and sometimes are unpredictable.
- Thoughts and behavior patterns are affected by the trauma.
- Recurring emotional reactions are common.
- Interpersonal relationships often become strained.
- Physical symptoms may accompany the extreme stress.
We may have to deal with guilt, anger and blame (survivor’s guilt) so we do what we can when we are experiencing any of these symptoms. Get help if you need it. Let go of the rest.>
As the “Serenity Prayer” reminds us: God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.
Police and many first responders usually see an outpouring of public support when members die in the line of duty. It is this public support that makes the grief journey a little easier for the families, those who were close to or knew them and those who just feel a loss.
Our communities also feel a loss and are never sure what to do. They set up public memorials where an on-duty officer died or in front of police stations, sign books of condolences or tweet messages of support.
Today many provinces and Ottawa have police memorials, where annually we honour those who have been killed in the line of duty – a fitting way to remember those whom we have lost in the past year and a reminder to all that we never forget those who lost their lives in years past.
It’s not only colleagues who grieve the loss of a police officer but also wives, husbands, children, parents, girlfriends, boyfriends and extended families. There is always an outpouring of offers of support immediately after the death but these gestures need to extend weeks, months and years after the final ceremonial sendoff is done. This is where the long term scars on those closest occur and are needed the most. This is usually the time when “the police family” really shines as they come together to try to console and offer any assistance they can. As police often say, “We look after our own.”
Policing does an excellent job of handling crisis, for the most part, and funeral organization is part of the operational mentality that always comes together for a big event. More difficult is being there and understanding long after what significance this death has in the longer term for the officer who attended the funeral.
Beside yourself, your fellow officers and your community, don’t forget the other groups who are grieving the same as you – senior officers and civilians, those who manage and supervise your police service. They too go through a grieving period. In many cases they know the officer who died as they came up through the ranks together or regularly interacted with them.
Wise senior officers and civilian managers know that after a traumatic experience it is wise to provide some time off to those who were closest to the officer who died. This gives them time to process their own grief and come to grips with the “new normal.”
In time, the many symptoms of grief will ease. They will probably never completely go away but as we move forward, we learn to live with our loss and remember special moments with the deceased. We remember them on their birthday and during all of the holidays. We remember them while we do our daily shifts and remember similar circumstances from years gone past when we worked with them.
We won’t forget our friend, hero, partner and colleague. Their name, face and good times will always be etched into our memories and nothing will ever change that.
There is a large body of academic work and literature on grief and bereavement – too large to cover all the points in detail in this article. If you’re interested in finding out more, start with an Internet search and by talking to your police service chaplain or someone in your EAP.
John M. Muldoon, APR, FCPRS, LM, was the former Director Public Affairs, Peel Regional Police, and former Manager of Communications and Public Affairs, Toronto District School Board. He is a trained grief facilitator and regularly conducts grief support groups in Oakville, Ontario. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
With thanks to:
Dr. Bill Webster (author), Beyond the Call, www.GriefJourney.com
Dr. Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.D, The Grieving Person’s Bill of Rights
Margaret Greenspan (author), Healing Through the Dark Emotion.
The grieving person’s bill of rights
by Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.D.
Though you should reach out to others as you do the work of mourning, you should not feel obligated to accept the unhelpful responses you may receive from some people. You are the one who is grieving and as such, you have certain “rights” no one should try to take away from you.
The following list is intended both to empower you to heal and to help you decide how others can and cannot help. This is not to discourage you from reaching out to others for help, but rather to assist you in distinguishing useful responses from hurtful ones.
You have the right to experience your own unique grief. No one else will grieve in exactly the same way you do. So, when you turn to others for help, don’t allow them to tell what you should or should not be feeling.
You have the right to talk about your grief. Talking about your grief will help you heal. Seek out others who will allow you to talk as much as you want, as often as you want, about your grief.
You have the right to feel a multitude of emotions. Confusion, disorientation, fear, guilt and relief are just a few of the emotions you might feel as part of your grief journey. Others may try to tell you that feeling angry, for example, is wrong. Don’t take these judgmental responses to heart. Instead, find listeners who will accept your feelings without condition.
You have the right to be tolerant of your physical and emotional limits. Your feelings of loss and sadness will probably leave you feeling fatigued. Respect what your body and mind are telling you. Get daily rest. Eat balanced meals. And don’t allow others to push you into doing things you don’t feel ready to do.
You have the right to experience grief “attacks.” Sometimes, out of nowhere, a powerful surge of grief may overcome you. This can be frightening, but it is normal and natural. Find someone who understands and will let you talk it out.
You have the right to make use of ritual. The funeral ritual does more than acknowledge the death of someone loved. It helps provide you with the support of carrying people. More important, the funeral is a way for you to mourn. If others tell you that rituals such as these are silly or unnecessary, don’t listen.
You have the right to embrace your spirituality. If faith is part of your life, express it in ways that seem appropriate to you. Allow yourself to be around people who understand and support your religious beliefs. If you feel angry with God, find someone to talk with who won’t be critical of your feelings of hurt and abandonment.
You have the right to search for meaning. You may find yourself asking, “Why did he or she die? Why this way? Why now?” Some of your questions may have answers, but some may not. Comments like “It was god’s will” or “Think of what you have to be thankful for” are not helpful and you do not have to accept them.
You have the right to treasure your memories. Memories are one of the best legacies that exist after the death of someone loved. You will always remember. Instead of ignoring your memories, find others with whom you can share them.
Your have the right to move toward your grief and heal. Reconciling your grief will not happen quickly. Remember, grief is a process, not an event. Be patient and tolerant with yourself and avoid people who are impatient and intolerant with you. Neither you nor those around you must forget that the death of someone loved changes your life forever.